For the first time since 2004, the Syracuse Orange has advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament with a 78-67 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils.
The No. 3 seed Syracuse and the No. 6 seed Arizona State, both in the South Bracket, squared off in a game between two of the better zone defenses in all of college basketball.
Syracuse used their vaunted 2-3 zone to entice the Sun Devils into hoisting a barrage of three-point shots.
Arizona State normally attempts 19 threes per game. But on this day, they launched 35 shots from beyond the arc, connecting on 13, or 37.1 percent.
Rihards Kuksiks (6-of-13) and Ty Abbott (6-of-10) were both sensational, as they combined to sink 12 of the Devils’ 13 three-point attempts. Both players scored 20 points to lead the attack for ASU.
Not to be outdone, Syracuse was even better percentage-wise from behind the line.
The Orange, led by Eric Devendorf’s 21 points, including 5-of-11 on threes, drained 45 percent (9-of-20) of their threes.
Devendorf received plenty of help from his teammates.
Andy Rautins, who went scoreless against Stephen F. Austin in Round One, rediscovered his shooting stroke as he torched the Devils for 17 points, highlighted by nailing three of his seven three-point shots. For good measure, Rautins also grabbed four rebounds and dished out five assists.
As well as Devendorf and Rautins tickled the twine from long distance, the Orange used their inside strength to dominate.
Arinze Onuaku scored 12 points down low while Rick Jackson had 13 points to go along with a game-high eight rebounds. The duo combined for 11 close-range baskets as they dominated the front line of the Sun Devils.
Arizona State received barely any low post production from their big man, senior Jeff Pendergraph.
In what turned out to be his final collegiate game, Pendergraph had a nightmare of an afternoon.
The California native scored nine points and grabbed two rebounds before fouling out in only 24 minutes of action.
Credit Syracuse’s zone for Pendergraph’s troubles, though.
In the first half, the Sun Devils simply couldn’t penetrate the zone in order to get clean looks from the inside.
If not for the hot hand of Kuksiks, the Orange would’ve led by greater than nine, 41-32, at halftime.
With a little over 10 minutes reaming in the game, Pendergraph picked up his fifth foul. At the time, Syracuse had a 12-point lead and appeared ready to put away the Sun Devils for good.
But to ASU’s credit, they made a charge.
Syracuse, who once possessed a 15-point lead, clung to life as Arizona State had cut the margin to 61-57 with six minutes remaining.
But like they had all game long, Devendorf and Rautins answered the bell.
The duo sank three three-point shots in a 9-2 run that pushed the lead back out to 70-59 and Syracuse cruised home from there.
Much like he did in their first-round win over Temple, Arizona State sensation James Harden struggled to find his game.
The sophomore scored on 10 points, of which six of those came from the free throw line.
Harden converted only two of 10 shots and failed to connect on all five of his three-point attempts.
And now Sun Devil fans have to wonder if they’ve seen the last of Harden, who’s a prime candidate to enter this year’s NBA Draft.
Syracuse iron man point guard Jonny Flynn rebounded nicely from a sloppy seven turnover performance against SFA with seven assists and only two turnovers with 11 points.
The Orange now set their sights on a trip to Memphis for Friday’s South Regional semifinals against the No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners.
Fanbases of both the Orange and the Sooners remember the last time these two schools tangled in the NCAA tournament.
In 2003, led by freshman sensation Carmelo Anthony, third-seeded Syracuse defeated No. 1 seed Oklahoma in the East Regional final to earn a Final Four berth. Syracuse would eventually capture the national championship that season.
This time around, Jim Boeheim’s squad will have their hands full as they attempt to solve the puzzle that is low post beast, and probable National Player of the Year, Blake Griffin.