Syracuse’s most satisfying NCAA successes: a trip down March memory lane

There’s an old proverb that says it’s always darkest before the dawn. Perhaps no sporting event is more fitting of that axiom than the NCAA Tournament. Every March, David and Goliath routinely tangle in a battle for hard-court supremacy. Almost as routinely as these match-ups are the nerve-wracking, nail-biting, Twitter-exploding finishes. Be it Cinderella refusing to leave the ball early or a high seed rescuing its season from epic disaster at the hands of a mid- or low-major, memorable finishes reside in NCAA lore forever.

Syracuse has certainly had its share of memorable (translation: forgettable) March finishes. Last month I wrote about what an Orange Revenge Bracket might resemble. This month’s entry is best viewed through Orange-colored lenses. Here’s what a March bracket of unforgettable Syracuse tournament wins might look like.

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The Juice Online’s Andrew Kouwe (left) and the 2003 National Championship team

Round of 64: Syracuse 104, Bucknell Bison 81 – March 17, 1989

Unless a team is fighting for its tournament life, games in the Round of 64 aren’t too memorable. What is memorable was how good the 1988-89 Syracuse squad was. Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Stevie Thompson, Billy Owens, Matt Roe, Richard Manning and Dave Johnson. That team was loaded. And, after having five days to dwell on losing to Georgetown in the Big East Tournament Championship, the guys were angry, too. The Orange rolled Bucknell by jumping out to a 16-point halftime lead and cruising the rest of the way. The most impressive part? Coleman didn’t even play due to a back injury. No matter. Owens led the way with 27 points and 13 rebounds. Thompson added 21 points and four assists, while Douglas tallied 19 points and dished out nine helpers. Roe dropped 19 points as well including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.

» More from Steve Auger: Syracuse revenge tour bracket: Rewriting history one gut-wrenching loss at a time

Round of 32: Syracuse 68, Oklahoma State Cowboys 56 – March 23, 2003

Basketball is a game of runs. And against Oklahoma State, Syracuse needed a big one to move on. The Orange trailed 25-8 with eight minutes remaining in the first half. SU responded with a 16-4 run of its own to cut the 17-point deficit to a mere six points at the half. During the second 20 minutes, freshmen sensations Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara found their strides as the duo combined for 25 points after the intermission.

Sweet 16: Syracuse 83, Georgia Bulldogs 81 OT – March 22, 1996

This game was not for the faint of heart. Despite leading by seven, 37-30, at halftime, Syracuse’s season was in peril against the 8-seed Bulldogs until Jason Cipolla tied the game at 70 with a corner jumper a hair before the buzzer sounded. The two teams were just getting warmed up. Senior John Wallace (30 points, 15 boards) provided the Orange with a 2-point lead, 80-78, with 15 seconds left in overtime. Not to be outdone, Pertha Robinson put Georgia back on top with a 3-pointer with only 7.1 ticks to play. That’s when Wallace made the play of the game. The Rochester, N.Y. native took the inbound pass, dribbled up court, and sank a 3-pointer of his own that would prove to be the final margin. Wallace played the last 17:12 of regulation and overtime with four fouls. On that Denver night, the “S” on Wallace’s uniform didn’t stand for Syracuse. It stood for Superman.

Elite 8: Syracuse 79, North Carolina Tar Heels 75- March 21, 1987

With a trip to the Final Four at stake, Syracuse didn’t disappoint. In this match-up of chalk, 2-seeded Syracuse had just enough to take down the 1-seeded Tar Heels. Rony Seikaly was dominant for the Orange netting a game-high 26 points with 11 rebounds. He had plenty of help, too. Sherman Douglas scored 14 points, while handing out nine assists. Greg Monroe and Howard Triche both finished in double figures with 12 and 10 points, respectively. Super frosh Derrick Coleman was a monster on the glass leading both teams with 14 rebounds. The victory gave Jim Boeheim the first of his four Final Four trips as a head coach.

» Related: How Syracuse fans spend their summer says a lot

Final 4: Syracuse 95, Texas Longhorns 84- April 5, 2003

After thrashing one half of the Red River Rivals, Oklahoma, to advance to the Final Four, the other half awaited Syracuse in the form of the Texas Longhorns. Offense ruled the day when these two squads squared off. As he had been all season, Carmelo Anthony was Carmelo Anthony. The freshman scored a career-high 33 points, while pulling down a game-high 14 rebounds. Anthony had plenty of help from his friends, too. Fellow freshman Gerry McNamara dropped 19 points on Texas, while Hakim Warrick was good for 18 points and seven rebounds. Josh Pace was the fourth Syracuse player to reach double figures with 12 points.

National Championship: Syracuse 81, Kansas Jayhawks 78- April 7, 2003

In what was billed as a match-up of the two best NCAA coaches to have never won a national championship, it was the players who decided this game. And when the final buzzer sounded, it was Jim Boeheim, and not Roy Williams, who wound up shedding that unwanted title. Perhaps you remember a highlight or two about this game? Let’s see, there was Carmelo Anthony flirting with a triple double as he scored 20 points, snatched 10 rebounds and handed out a team-high seven assists (not bad for a power forward). How can anyone forget the white-hot Gerry McNamara sinking six 3-pointers all in the first half? McNamara would score the entire second half. Billy Edelin and Josh Pace combined for 20 points off the bench. All of those are note-worthy performances critical to Syracuse cutting down the nets. But, they were all appetizers for THE play of the game that ensures Hakim Warrick will never ever pay for another meal in the city of Syracuse for the rest of his life. With the Orange clinging to a three-point lead and Kansas sizing up the tying three-point shot, Warrick seemed to majestically soar through the air from the middle of the lane to swat Michael Lee’s 3-point attempt from the corner out of bounds with just 1.5 ticks remaining. Syracuse hung on to win and, in the process, vanquish the ghosts of March Madness past.

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About Steve Auger

Steve Auger is a freelance writer whose work has covered a variety of topics including sports, pets, parenting, healthy living, local government and human interest stories. His work has been published on Care.com, Tom’s of Maine, Purina’s Petcentric.com and the Westford Patch. Steve’s been a diehard Syracuse sports fan for over 25 years. To this day, the words “Smart takes the shot” still make him cringe. Follow him on Twitter @Corner_Cube.
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