When played to perfection, there’s nothing quite like Syracuse’s aggressive, half-court 2-3 zone defense.
It’s 40 minutes of trapping and shot-challenging, of closing off angles, of trusting teammates.
“We showed,” senior guard Brendan Triche said, “that defense wins games.”
Yes, the Orange D certainly does.
With a second suffocating performance at the East Regional, No. 4-seeded Syracuse shut down No. 3 Marquette 55-39 Saturday to earn coach Jim Boeheim his fourth trip to the Final Four — and first since a freshman named Carmelo Anthony helped win the 2003 NCAA championship.
“A tremendous, tremendous defensive effort,” Boeheim said.
Fittingly, a matchup between schools from the soon-to-break-apart, rough-and-tumble Big East became quite a struggle on the offensive end. Syracuse (30-9) was led by senior forward James Southerland’s 16 points. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 guard who is out front in the zone, was named the regional’s top player after accounting for 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists, five steals and only one turnover Saturday.
Marquette (26-9) hadn’t scored fewer than 47 points all season — and, indeed, put up 74 in a victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. But this time, Marquette kept turning the ball over, seeing its shots blocked or just plain missing.
The Golden Eagles’ 39 points were a record low for a team in an NCAA tournament regional final since the shot clock was introduced in 1986.
“They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.”
Much like what happened Thursday in the regional semifinals, when Syracuse knocked off top-seeded Indiana by limiting it to a season-low output, too.
“I don’t think we’ve played as good defensively as these last two games,” Triche said. “We held some good teams down.”
All told, Marquette made only 12 of 53 shots — 23 percent — and was 3 for 24 on 3-pointers. Vander Blue, who carried Marquette to the round of eight, was held to 14 points on 3-for-15 shooting.
“They cover ground really good. You’ve got to get the ball in the middle, you’ve got to play inside out, you’ve got to get to the free-throw line and wear them down with the 3-pointer when you can,” Blue said. “They’re really good at what they do in that zone.”
Consider these numbers through four games in the tournament: Syracuse is averaging 6.5 blocks and 10.8 steals, while forcing opponents into 29 percent shooting, including 15 percent on 3-pointers.
The next team to try to solve that defense will be the winner of today’s South Regional final between Florida and Michigan. Syracuse is 3-0 in national semifinal games under Boeheim.
And to think: Exactly three weeks ago, in this very same building, Syracuse wrapped up its final Big East regular-season schedule before heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference with a bad-as-can-be performance in a lopsided loss to Georgetown. Syracuse’s 39 points that day were the Orange’s tiniest total in a half-century.
That was Syracuse’s fourth loss in a span of five games, a stumbling way to head into tournament play.
That night, Boeheim forgot to adjust his alarm clock to account for daylight saving time, and so showed up late for a pre-practice coaches’ meeting. His players, turned out, had organized their own session without supervision, starting the work it would take to get going in the right direction.
“I watched them for a few minutes and it was really a good thing. I thought our practices were really good after that,” Boeheim said. “You can turn things around in this game.”
Since then, Syracuse has won seven of eight.