Syracuse and Georgetown, two of the old guard whose storied rivalry helped mold the Big East into one of the Goliaths of college basketball, couldn’t quite get enough of one another during the regular season.
The two antagonists squared off for one final go-around as conference foes in the semifinals of the Big East tournament on Friday night that saw the Orange emerge victorious, 58-55, in overtime no less. Fitting that 40 minutes wasn’t enough to determine a victor between these longtime adversaries.
At stake, at least on paper, was a birth in Saturday night’s championship game against either Louisville or Notre Dame.
But this was about so much more than earning the right to play for the Big East title.
This was two rivals who have been at each other’s throats since John Thompson II and the Hoyas “officially closed” Manley Field House.
Not only did the Hoyas sweep both meetings with the Orange in the regular season, they did so in thoroughly dominating defensive fashion.
The first meeting, a 57-46 road win for Georgetown, snapped Syracuse’s 38-game home winning streak, longest in the nation at that time.
In the rematch two-and-a-half weeks later, the Hoyas embarrassed the Orange with a 61-39 drubbing which clinched them the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament.
Syracuse was in a tail spin having dropped four of its last five games to close the season. Georgetown had just given the Orange a butt-kicking on their way out the door. Their offense was non-existent having averaged 53.4 PPG in their last five losses.
Once considered a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Syracuse was headed towards being the trendy pick as a probable first-round upset victim.
James Southerland, Syracuse’s best three-point shooter, saw his shot go south in his last two regular season games against DePaul and Georgetown. Southerland connected on just one of 13 attempts.
The Orange’s late-season slide saw them plunge from at least sharing the Big East title and earning the top seed to falling to the fifth seed.
With the Big East tournament beckoning, Syracuse looked primed for a short stay.
Perhaps it was the magic and mystique of Madison Square Garden’s stage, but something woke the sleeping giant.
Southerland (6-of-9) and his teammates found their three-point shot against Seton Hall as they buried 9-of-15 triples.
The hot shooting continued in a quarterfinal win against Pittsburgh with 12-of-19 threes falling. Southerland once again was white-hot, and perfect, as he buried all six of his attempts.
Michael Carter-Williams rediscovered his passing touch handing out 21 assists, including a whopping 14 against Seton Hall, in the two wins. And he proved clutch against the Panthers burying four free throws in the last 28 seconds to seal the win.
After being left for dead one week earlier, Syracuse had one more hill to climb in order to play for the tournament championship: Georgetown.
Southerland (only 4-of-10 on threes) and Carter-Williams (only six assists) came back to earth slightly, but the pair received some help from a couple of unexpected sources.
Trevor Cooney, who’s struggled with his shot all year, scored 10 points off the bench in the first half including a pair of threes.
Baye Moussa Keita, another bench player, contributed 13 points while grabbing a team-high eight rebounds, six on the offensive glass. The most astonishing part of Keita’s performance was sinking all seven of his free-throw attempts. The junior entered the game shooting 49 percent from the free-throw line.
Above all, Syracuse finally solved Georgetown’s zone defense.
When the final horn sounded, Syracuse turned out the lights on the Hoyas one final time.
There’s an old adage that says he who laughs last, laughs best.
As Syracuse departs the conference it helped build for the brave new world of the ACC, after one final tussle with Georgetown, listen closely for the unmistakable noise emanating from across upstate New York.