Two NCAA Tournament games, two dominant second half performances, two wins. It has proven to be a simple formula for Syracuse, who outscored Middle Tennessee State by a 44-14 margin in just over 18 minutes of the second half, as they pulled away for a 75-50 NCAA Tournament win Sunday night. The victory pushed the Orange into the Sweet Sixteen and to 21-13 overall, while ending the season for the Blue Raiders (25-10).
As has nearly become tradition in the NCAA Tournament, the 2-3 zone of SU has become dominant, holding MTSU to 29.7 percent shooting in the game, including a paltry 25 percent after the break.
Meanwhile, Syracuse was rolling on offense at the same time, hitting 63.6 percent of their field goals after the break, including 9-of-12 (75 percent) inside the arc, and connecting on 80 percent from the free throw line. The Orange also protected the ball after halftime, committing only two turnovers in the final 20 minutes of play.
Tyler Roberson scored on the opening two possessions for Syracuse, first tapping in a miss, then finishing on a lay-up for a quick 4-0 lead. Middle Tennessee State responded quickly to grab a 5-4 lead.
That MTSU lead was short-lived, though, as the Orange ripped off a 15-3 run a couple minutes later. Michael Gbinije started the burst with a nifty reverse lay-up to break a 7-7 tie. Backcourt mate Trevor Cooney then got in on the act, sandwiching a pair of threes from the right wing around a Blue Raider three.
Roberson then found a slashing Gbinije for a one-handed tomahawk jam. Tyler Lydon drove the left side and connected on a short leaner, then Cooney finished off the run with another deep right wing three, this one pushing SU to a 22-10 lead just over nine minutes into the action.
Middle Tennessee State fought back into the game, mostly due to a pair of runs. The first was six consecutive points tallied while the Orange scuffled through a stretch of over four minutes without a score that made it a six-point game. The second was a 9-2 run that brought them within 30-27 with under a minute left in the opening session.
Lydon would get the last marker of the half, though, connecting on the last of three free throws after being fouled on a shot beyond the arc. The free throw gave Syracuse a 31-27 lead at intermission.
That lead was wiped out barely 80 seconds into the second half. The Blue Raiders canned treys on their first two possessions, quickly grabbing a 33-31 lead. Then, the roof collapsed on them.
The first cracks came when the Orange responded to those triples with a 9-2 run that lasted just over 90 seconds. As with their first half run, SU started things with a Gbinije reverse lay-up. Roberson added two foul shots, then Malachi Richardson swished a deep three from the right wing to offset an MTSU deuce and put Syracuse in front for good. Roberson then added two more from the stripe for a 40-35 lead.
The Blue Raiders shaved the margin down to a single point, but the Orange responded by allowing them only one bucket in the next ten minutes and change. Meanwhile, SU rolled up 21 points in that time, including closing the burst with 16 straight.
Lydon started things off with a three-point-play around the first media time out, then Gbinije took over for Syracuse. He coaxed a pair of pull-up jumpers to rattle in around the lone MTSU basket, then connected on a left corner three off a Frank Howard pass from the top of the key. That triple put the Orange on top by nine points.
DaJuan Coleman then barreled into the lane to score in close and Howard added a jump shot from just inside the top of the key. Lydon then assisted on a Coleman lay-in and tacked on both ends of a one-and-one on the next SU possession. Coleman also connected on both ends and Richardson the front end on their subsequent trips to the line.
When the smoke cleared, Syracuse held a 61-41 lead with 6:18 to play.
The Orange would actually push their lead to 28 points in the waning moments with eight straight points. First, Cooney hit yet another three from the right wing, this one coming up against the shot clock. Richardson lobbed an alley-oop to Roberson for a slam with just under a minute to play for what should have been the exclamation point, but on SU’s last meaningful possession of the night, Gbinije added a straightaway three with the shot clock again running out.
Once again, Syracuse had a balanced offensive output, led by Michael Gbiinje, who hit 10-of-14 shots en route to a game-high 23 points. For the second straight game, Tyler Lydon had 14 points off the bench, this time adding six blocked shots. Trevor Cooney drained four threes for his 12 points and Tyler Roberson also had a dozen points to go with nine rebounds. DaJuan Coleman chipped in with eight points.
Darnell Harris was the lone Blue Raider to reach double figures, finishing with 11 points. Giddy Potts and Jaqawn Raymond each added nine while Perrin Buford contributed eight.
Friday night, the Orange will face #11-seed Gonzaga with an Elite Eight berth in the balance. The Bulldogs reached their place in the Sweet Sixteen by handling Seton Hall in their opener, 68-52, then throttling Utah, 82-59.
Center Domantas Sabonis has been a force for the ‘Zags, tallying 40 points and 26 rebounds in their two NCAA Tournament games. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga’s 6’10” forward and top scorer on the season, is averaging 15 points a game in the tourney and 20.4 on the season, including hitting 43.2 percent of his three-pointers.
Game time and television coverage for Friday’s Sweet Sixteen game between Syracuse and Gonzaga is yet to be determined.