Orange Watch: Boeheim accomplishes the once seemingly incomprehensible

With Connecticut in the Dome Saturday afternoon, as Jim Boeheim has done his entire 36-year career, the focus is on the next game not the preceding one, which in this case just happened to be the latest chapter, a back-and-forth overtime thriller, between the teams that constitute the best rivalry in the Big East’s 33-year history.

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As many students in the Dome held “880” signs aloft at the conclusion of the ‘Cuse  64-61 win over Georgetown Wednesday night to signify Boeheim’s 880th victory – the most ever in Division I by a coach at one school, and one more than the legendary Dean Smith and now trailing only Mike Krzyzewski (920 and counting) and Bob Knight (902), we smiled at the irony that in the first eleven years of his career, Boeheim faced Smith four times going 1-3, and there is no way anyone would have ever guessed that the coach known universally for his 2-3 defense, would one day exceed the win total of the coach who gained fame for his Four Corners offense.

As we take a look back at those four matchups, keep in mind the sometimes excruciating long periods of time it took both Naismith Hall members to notch the championship success that landed them in Springfield while still active on the sidelines.

Smith “finally” won the first of his two national titles in the Louisiana Superdome in 1982 after 21 seasons, which included six Final Four appearances and three second-place finishes, while Boeheim teams didn’t even win consecutive NCAA Tournament games until 1987, his 11th season, and eventually two title game shots, before finally winning a championship in his 27th season, also, ironically, in the Superdome.

Boeheim versus Smith in the evolutionary 80s:

January 1983-The Tar Heels (and Smith) were the rock stars of college basketball, the defending national champions with a lineup that featured Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, and emerging freshman big man Brad Daugherty.

The game was played at the original Charlotte (now Bojangles’) Coliseum, as Smith regularly played some non-conference games outside Chapel Hill each season in an effort to expose the team to fans around the state.

SU was 11-0 (ranked 9th/12th)  led by the talented “triplets” Leo Rautins (said by Sports Illustrated that season to be “the most spectacular passer in college” basketball), Red Bruin, and Erich Santifer in their third and final season together, but were no match for Carolina’s suffocating defense in the second half losing 87-64 as Jordan finished with 18 points and 7 rebounds, while Santifer had a game-high 24 points in defeat.

December 1983-Those rock stars had been dethroned in a major upset by Georgia on the brutally-hard,  tartan-surfaced Dome court in the NCAA East Regional final the previous March, when they invaded the Dome again eight months later as the number-one ranked team in the country, finishing out the brief home-and home series.

While the score was the same as the season before, an 87-64 Carolina victory, the game was so lopsided that the second largest Dome crowd (32,235) at the time had little to cheer about except the half court heave from reserve guard Sonny Spera that hit nothing but net as the first-half buzzer sounded, which simply made the mismatch a tad more entertaining.

The game marked the third and final appearance Jordan made in the Dome as a Tar Heel, four months later he would shock the basketball world with his post-season announcement, with Smith’s blessing and sitting next to each other at the press conference, that he was bypassing his senior season to jump to the NBA.

March 1987-Not only had SU won back-to-back NCAA games for the first time under Boeheim, following a nail-biting win over Florida in the East regional semi-finals at the N.J. Meadowlands, the Tar Heels were the large obstacle standing in front of Boeheim’s first Final Four berth.

With Sherman Douglas lobbing Carolina crazy with inside feeds to Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman on route to nine assists, the Orange led by 11 at halftime before holding on in the final minutes by hitting four crucial free throws to win 79-75 over a Tar Heels team that Smith labeled “great,” a word he rarely used, and indeed that team featured seven future NBA players.

November 1987-A runner-up finish the previous spring put the pre-season top-ranked Orangemen in the Tip-Off Classic against 3rd ranked North Carolina at the Springfield (Mass.) Civic Center in the season opener, a week after Boeheim beat out Smith for Pennsylvania high school star Billy Owens, the nation’s top forward prospect, and the brother of football running back Michael Owens.

Again up 11 at the half paced by Seikaly’s strong inside play, UNC rallied behind guard Ranzino Smith (21-points) and freshman big men Pete Chilcut and Rick Fox.  Chilcut’s bounce-off-the-glass shot with seconds left in regulation sent the game into overtime, and sloppy play in OT resulted in a 96-93 Orange loss.

Despite the defeat, SU stayed number one in the polls until a loss to Arizona two weeks later, and the news got brighter several hours later as Michael Owens took a Don McPherson pitch and scooted around the left side for the winning two-point conversion with 9 seconds left as the ‘Cuse capped off an 11-0 dream season with a 32-31 win over West Virginia in front of a delirious Dome crowd.

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Brad Bierman

About Brad Bierman

Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.
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