The Syracuse Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone defense eventually overwhelmed 15th-seeded Cinderella Middle Tennessee State in Sunday's round-of-32 showdown.
Michael Gbinije had 23 points to lead the 10th-seeded Orange on offense, while they stifled the Blue Raiders in the second half in a 75-50 victory at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis to advance to the Sweet 16.
Among the several buckets Gbinije had amid a 10-of-14 shooting performance was a monster dunk that helped Syracuse set the tone en route to the regional semifinals:
Although Syracuse led by double digits for a fair amount of the opening half, Middle Tennessee fought back to cut its deficit to 31-27 at halftime as the Orange missed six of seven free throws.
Then the Blue Raiders came out of the locker room and hit two three-pointers to take the lead by two, but that was the last time they would enjoy an advantage of any kind.
The favorites ratcheted up the intensity defensively, forced Middle Tennessee into contested jumpers and imposed their will on offense as well. Gbinije came up particularly big during that stretch, scoring seven straight to boost Syracuse to a 50-41 lead with 11:23 on the game clock.
CBS Sports' Jerry Palm highlighted how the next sequence of the final half went, as the Orange suffocated MTSU and began to turn the game into a blowout:
Syracuse starting to put this away. The run is now 18-2 and Middle has missed 14 of its last 15 shots. Orange up 58-41 with 7:16 left— Jerry Palm (@jppalmCBS) March 20, 2016
Middle Tennessee wound up with only 23 points in the last 20 minutes, shooting a woeful 29.7 percent to Syracuse's far more proficient clip of 55.1 from the field.
Syracuse.com's Brent Axe had a notable stat regarding MTSU's inability to execute on offense:
Middle Tennessee State finished at 29% from the field against Syracuse after shooting 56% against Michigan State. #Zoned— Brent Axe (@BrentAxeMedia) March 21, 2016
After scoring a team-high 21 points in the massive 90-81 upset over Michigan State, Blue Raiders star Reggie Upshaw was evidently bothered by Syracuse's size on the inside and went 1-of-10 shooting for two points.
Orange freshman forward Tyler Lydon not only helped his squad's spacing on offense with his shooting range, but he also proved to be a devastating shot-blocking force. He disrupted Upshaw's rhythm and swatted six shots in addition to scoring 14 points and pulling down seven boards.
In terms of NBA potential, Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman opined that Lydon has as much as anyone on a formidable Orange team:
Two terrific defensive plays right there by Lydon. Think he's Syracuse's top NBA prospect, for what it's worth.— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) March 20, 2016
Speaking of the pros, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News wondered whether a certain Syracuse legend was tuned in for Sunday's contest as the Orange silenced those who doubted them prior to the tourney:
I'm sure Carmelo has multiple TVs at his house but if he had only one is he watching Syracuse or the Knicks?— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 20, 2016
At least one marquee player from the program's storied history was interested—Derrick Coleman asked who'd join him for the regional semifinals trip to the Windy City:
Who gonna meet me in the Chi— Derrick Coleman (@44TheLegend) March 21, 2016
ESPN personality and Syracuse alum Mike Tirico was most pleased as the Orange continued a spectacular turnaround from a late-season slump:
The Cauldron provided an appropriate mascot reaction to Sunday's result:
Syracuse will move on pic.twitter.com/aLvbOyzTN9— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) March 21, 2016
Losers of five of six games entering the Big Dance, it was easy to count out Syracuse. However, head coach Jim Boeheim's bunch has rallied around the criticism, as there was some question regarding the merit of the Orange even being in the March Madness field.
To the Orange's credit, they've taken the opportunity and run with it. Now they proceed to the Sweet 16 in Chicago to face another double-digit seed upstart in Gonzaga.
This guarantees a double-digit seed will play in the Elite Eight. What makes this impending matchup so fascinating is it features two great coaches in Boeheim and Mark Few whose teams have been consistent fixtures in the NCAA tournament yet were misguidedly counted out this time around.
Gonzaga boasts a dynamic offense headlined by forward Kyle Wiltjer, but Syracuse has the exotic defense to stymie the Bulldogs well enough to continue an improbable run.
Lydon and assistant Orange coach Mike Hopkins were among those to take to Twitter to celebrate the win:
CUSE NATION....WE STILL DANCING!! 🍊🏀 #1KP— Tyler Lydon (@Tyler_Lydon14) March 21, 2016
Blue Raiders head coach Kermit Davis heaped high praise on Lydon after witnessing his stellar all-around performance, saying, per Syracuse.com's Chris Carlson, "He's a lottery pick in time."
Due to the success the ACC has enjoyed in the tournament this year, Boeheim was posed a question as to whether the conference is better than the old Big east, to which he replied, per Carlson, "You know I'm never going to say that."
Boeheim admitted he felt rather fortunate just to be a part the Big Dance when he said, per Dan Wolken of USA Today, "I was happy just to get in. I would have taken the play-in game."
Despite the raised stakes of March Madness, Syracuse has had a lighter schedule than it's used to in its conference of late. Now the Orange have a ton of steam to carry forward and aren't showing any signs of slowing down.