NEW YORK — Trailing Virginia Tech 40-37 with 14:03 left in the second half, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim perused his bench and summoned Dion Waiters to come into the game.
Waiters made a special mental note of that, because it was a huge vote of confidence from Boeheim.
“Last year, in a situation like that, he probably wouldn’t have come to me,” Waiters said. “He has faith in me now, just knowing that the hard work in the offseason is finally paying off.”
It didn’t take long for Waiters to make his presence felt for Syracuse, which went on to beat Virginia Tech 69-58 to advance to the finals of the Dick’s Sporting Goods NIT Season Tip-Off.
After the two teams exchanged dunks, Waiters found Brandon Triche, who drained a 3-pointer to tie the game.
On SU’s ensuing possession, Waiters drove the lane, garnering the attention of two Virginia Tech defenders. The sophomore found CJ Fair cutting down the left lane for a two-handed dunk, giving Syracuse its first lead of the game, a 44-42 advantage with 12:13 left.
Waiters finished with 11 points, four assists and three steals.
“When veteran guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, he gives us a spark,” Kris Joseph said. “He did a great job for us off the bench.”
Shortly after, Waiters single-handedly drove the Syracuse offense.
This time, Triche returned the favor, finding Waiters for a 3-pointer that give SU a 50-42. The pro-Syracuse crowd at Madison Square Garden went ballistic, forcing Virginia Tech to call timeout.
“I told myself, ‘You got to knock this one down,'” Waiters said. “And that’s what I did.”
It didn’t end there.
Waiters would add a two more jumpers and a layup, part of nine-straight points that gave the Orange an insurmountable 56-45 lead with 8:17 left. The Hokies would get no closer than five points after that.
“We went with the veterans in the second half, guys that have been there,” Boeheim said. “They did a tremendous job.”
It has been a renaissance season for Waiters, who came into the game as SU’s leading scorer at 13.8 points per game.
Last year, Waiters had an up-and-down freshman year.
The Philadelphia native hit his lowest point of the season when he played just three minutes in a Feb. 19 game against Rutgers. It was reported that Waiters had gotten into a shouting match with Boeheim.
But those days seem like a distant memory now.
“It’s so much easier learning from last year,” Waiters said. “I’m more fast, I’m quicker. I’m getting to the spots.”