In their first two NCAA Tournament games, Syracuse used excellent second half performances to secure victories. In Friday night’s Sweet Sixteen game in Chicago, the Orange (22-13) closed the game strong once more, this time finishing on a 15-3 run over the final 6:18 to pull out a 63-60 victory over Gonzaga (28-8) and advance to the Midwest Regional final on Sunday.
The late SU rally wiped out a nine-point deficit and was powered by their defense. The Zags missed their final seven field goal attempts and turned the ball over five times in that closing span.
That strong closing kick helped cover a rough offensive performance by the Orange. Syracuse shot a mere 36.1 percent from the field in the game, but offset it by making 14-of-16 foul shots. In spite of missing their last seven shots from the floor, the Bulldogs connected on 43.6 percent of their tries.
Perhaps the biggest difference was that SU’s defense flustered the Zags frequently, forcing 17 turnovers in the game. The Orange, in contrast, only gave the ball away nine times.
The two teams traded a pair of markers in the game’s first couple minutes, but Gonzaga then shot out to a 13-4 lead on the strength of eight straight points that forced a Syracuse time out. Trevor Cooney drove for a lay-up to end that streak by the Zags, but they responded with a three-pointer for a 16-6 lead before five minutes were off the clock.
The teams again traded scores for a few minutes, but as the midpoint of the half approached, the Bulldogs got their fifth triple of the first ten minutes. This one gave them their biggest lead of the night at 21-10.
The Orange responded by outscoring Gonzaga by an 18-8 margin over the remainder of the half.
SU started things off with a 10-2 run. Frank Howard opened the scoring with a three-pointer from the right side, then Michael Gbinije added a foul shot. The two then combined for a score, as Howard kicked out a pass from a congested key to Gbinije, who connected from three from the left side. The Zags responded with a basket to make it a six-point game, but Malachi Richardson halved that gap by swishing a three from the top of the key to bring Syracuse within 23-20 with just over seven minutes left in the opening half.
In the final 1:41 of the half, SU scored six points to Gonzaga’s zero, tightening up the game. Tyler Roberson started things with a pair of free throws, then caught a zipped pass from Howard for a two-handed dunk. Cooney then dropped in a couple foul shots for the final points of the half, sending the teams into the locker room with the Zags holding a 29-28 lead.
Syracuse continued to hold the advantage in play during the opening minutes of the second half. Cooney started things with an off-balance lay-up, then Gbinije leaned in one of his own. Gbinije added a 17-foot fadeaway trailing in transition for a 34-29 Orange lead less than three minutes after the action resumed.
The Bulldogs proved game, though, posting a 10-2 run to jump in front by three. Following that, the two teams again alternated scores for a handful of minutes until SU got back-to-back markers to take the lead. Roberson tapped in a Richardson miss to draw Syracuse within one, then Gbinije pulled up from 19 feet to give them a 44-43 lead.
That advantage was short-lived, though, as the Zags ran off another 10-2 run. This one gave them a 53-46 lead with under eight minutes to play. Back-to-back field goals later stretched the Gonzaga lead to 57-48 with 6:30 left to play.
But Syracuse fought back.
Cooney swished a contested three from the right wing to start the Orange offense. After nearly a three-minute scoring drought, Richardson used a rhythm dribble to get into a left wing three, pulling SU within 57-54.
After the Bulldogs got a pair of foul shots and a turnover by each team, Syracuse went to their full court press. Cooney stole a pass and turned it into a lay-up. On the next possession, Tyler Lydon tapped in a miss, bringing the Orange within 59-58 with 2:18 on the clock.
A Gonzaga free throw made it a two-point gap, but that would be eventually prove to be the final Bulldog point of the night.
With under 90 seconds to play, Roberson made the second of a pair of foul shots to make it a 60-59 game. Two offensive trips later, Gbinije got blocked on a lay-up, but scooped up the loose ball and laid it in for a 61-60 SU lead.
On the ensuing Gonzaga possession, Cooney showed great anticipation, racing from the top of the key into the right corner to steal a pass with ten seconds remaining. Cooney was called out of bounds in live action, but the play was reviewed. Video review showed that Cooney remained just inbounds, but that type of inbounds call cannot be overturned by rule, meaning there should not have been a review at all.
The Zags were given the ball out of bounds. Syracuse forced Gonzaga into a floater in the key with 3.5 seconds to go, but Lydon swatted the shot and was fouled in the rebounding action. Lydon drained both free throws, giving the Orange a 63-60 lead with under two seconds to go.
Gonzaga inbounded and got a long-distance fling at the rim, but the shot was well off the mark, sending SU to the Elite Eight.
Michael Gbiinje paced the Syracuse offense with 20 points, tallying a dozen of then after halftime. Trevor Cooney made 5-of-9 shots en route to 15 points and Malachi Richardson finished with ten points, but struggled through a 3-for-14 night from the field. Tyler Roberson fell just short of a double-double with nine points and a dozen rebounds. Nine of Roberson’s boards came on the offensive end of the court. Tyler Lydon had another solid defensive game, blocking six shots for the second straight outing.
Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis played as advertised for Gonzaga, combining for 42 points, 22 rebounds, and seven blocks. Wiltjer hit four threes as he topped all scorers with 23 points, including 11 points in just over six minutes to start the night. Sabonis owned a substantial portion of the paint, finishing the game with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting, to go with 17 rebounds and five blocked shots. Aside from those two, the Zags got only 18 points on 7-of-26 shooting from the floor.
The Orange advance to an all-ACC regional final, as top-seeded Virginia awaits them. The Cavaliers (29-7) reached the Elite Eight by jumping all over Iowa State early and cruising to an 84-71 win. Virginia led by 14 points before the game was five minutes old and never allowed the Cyclones to get closer than seven points after that.
The Cavaliers have owned Syracuse since the latter entered the conference, winning all three matchups. Virginia’s top-notch defense has been outstanding in all three games, never allowing SU to shoot 40 percent from the field. In fact, this year’s matchup was the closest of the three contests, as the Orange shot 38.9 percent from the field en route to a 73-65 loss in Charlottesville.
In that contest, Michael Gbinije and Malachi Richardson carried the load of the offense for SU. Gbinije hit five threes on his way to 24 points and Richardson connected on six triples for the bulk of his 23 points. The Cavaliers’ top three scorers on the year, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and London Perrantes, were just that in the game, combining for 53 points. Brogdon led the way with 21 points while Gill and Perrantes each tallied 16, the latter connecting on four three-pointers.
The two ACC foes will meet on Sunday at 6:00pm Eastern. TBS will televise the game.