I Can't Believe What I Just Saw
March 13, 2009 - John Whittaker
I feel like an extra in Night of the Living Dead right now -- and my team won last night.
Without falling into the instant analysis mode that I typically hate, last night's Syracuse-Connecticut game - which decided nothing more than who plays West Virginia in the Big East Tournament semifinals - is the May Day game, Games 5 and 6 of the 2001 World Series and the first Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed fight all rolled into one.
'Cuse-UConn had it all: the never-ending playoff hockey feel, game-changing plays that left you feeling like your team had won or lost the game at least 15 times and tons of punches and counter-punches, the teams standing an inch apart in the center of the ring, throwing haymakers at each other.
And I saw the whole thing, live from my bedroom.
I cringed when Jeff Adrien just missed a jumper that could have ended the game at the end of the third overtime.
I couldn't watch when Paul Harris had two chances at the end of the fourth overtime, right at the rim, but was unable to finish.
If I could dance, I would have when Andy Rautins drilled a 3-pointer with 11.7 seconds left in the third overtime to tie the game. When he hit another 3 to start the sixth overtime, I think I breakdanced like it was 1985.
I almost fell asleep in that third overtime. Connecticut had jumped out to a six-point lead early in the period. I had to be up for work in about six and a half hours, and sleep was coming on fast.
Then, Jonny Flynn made the 15th of his huge plays, with many more to follow. Rautins drilled his 3-pointer, and the idea of sleep was gone until 2 a.m.
I can't imagine how Flynn played 67 minutes at such a high level. As the guys I play with at the YMCA on Sunday mornings can attest, after we play four games to 15, I suck. My jumper is short. My defense is worse than its normal pitiful. I make horrible decisions with the ball. I'm bending over, hands on my knees, wondering if I can move to play defense. I'll take a break on an offensive possession or two, letting someone else do the heavy lifting. Forget making a quick move to track down a loose ball - I just can't move that way.
Yet, Flynn showed just how good he is by not only gutting out 67 minutes in the pressure cooker that is Madison Square Garden and the Big East Tournament, but by putting his teammates on his narrow shoulders and lifting them to the win. It was a McNamara-esque performance - and that's not a term I throw about loosely.
Regardless of whether Hasheem Thabeet was in the game or not, Flynn was determined to take the ball to the rim. More often than not, he either made the shot or was fouled. When he was fouled, he knocked down the free throws - the only miss he had from the line came with Syracuse up by 8 in the last minute of the sixth overtime. When he had to put mind over matter and hit free throws (and unless you've done it, you have no idea how hard it is. It's difficult in a high school practice, much less a Division 1 college basketball game) he did -- as did the rest of the team.
Some other notable moments for me from Thursday/Friday's game include:
1. Kristof Onganeat making about four huge hustle plays as regulation was winding down. He only scored three points for the entire game, but The Waffle keeps doing all the little things you have to do to win. When Rick Jackson or Harris gets off to a poor start, he comes in and helps right the ship. He battles for rebounds. He dives for loose balls. He makes plays a player of his limited athleticism has any right making. He'll be missed next year.
2. Arinze Onuaku hitting back-to-back free throws down the stretch. If he doesn't hit both of those shots, Syracuse loses. Way to go, big man. And, Onuaku and Rick Jackson finally started making some aggressive moves against Thabeet. If they can handle Thabeet, they can handle any center they face the rest of the season.
3. If Gavin Edwards doesn't get a fingernail on full-court pass at the end of regulation, this game is just a classic because Devendorf's jumper at the buzzer would have counted. Watch the replay and see just how little of that ball Edwards touched to start the clock. It was still an unbelievable shot by Devendorf, who gives the Orange their swagger. Announcers like to give Devo crap for the way he plays, but I don't think the Orange are as dangerous when Devendorf isn't yapping at opponents and playing like he's on the playground. He gives Syracuse an edge that you have to have. If you play with him, you love Devo. If you play against him, you hate Devo. I'm fine with that.
4. Paul Harris sticking with it, during a game where he didn't play well for such long stretches. In the last two overtimes, when the Orange had to have a play made and Connecticut doing its best to deny Flynn the ball, Harris stepped up. He made his free throws. He (finally) made a couple of layups at the end of the game to give Syracuse breathing room. He pulled down big rebounds. He's a human roller-coaster of a player, and in the end, I'm glad he plays for my team.
5. Flynn is unbelievable. With him on the court, there is no reason Syracuse can't beat any team it plays. It might take four hours to do it, but they're not out of any game. Kemba Walker is a really, really good defensive player, and he couldn't keep Flynn from getting wherever he wanted on the court. The pass he made to Rick Jackson, making sure he drew Thabeet away from the rim, at the end of the second overtime was magical. He set Harris up for a similar play, but Harris was unable to finish at the end of the fourth overtime. Still, Flynn is among the top 5 players in college basketball - and he went to high school 70 minutes up the Thruway and played a few games in the McElrath Gymnasium. Wow.
6. This might be the night the young Orange grew up. If Syracuse hits the shots they normally make, or if they had finally conquered their fear of Mount Thabeet, the Orange win this game by 20. But, they impressed me by grinding this game out all night long. They didn't force many bad shots. They didn't take too many shots early in the shot clock. For the most part, they found the shooters defensively. Rebounding was inconsistent, but Syracuse battled on the boards. They hustled back on defense. This is how you win in March. The Orange had only 16 turnovers in 70 minutes of basketball. They shot 40 for 51 from the free throw line. They hit 39 percent of their 3-point attempts, while holding Connecticut to 20 percent and forcing 27 Connecticut turnovers.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Syracuse's late-season struggles could kill me, and I wasn't joking. But, last night, I finally saw the grittiness that I was looking for. They let a late-game lead slip away, but not because they played badly. They didn't lead in any of the first five overtimes, but didn't fold. They hung in and hung in and hung in until they finally had an advantage -- Thabeet fouling out, Price being fatigued, Stanley Robinson fouling out -- and built a lead Connecticut couldn't overcome.
Now, they're playing with house money.
I won't be too disappointed, as long as they play hard and show up, what happens the rest of the season. I don't expect them to win tonight against West Virginia. The NCAA Tournament is the world's ultimate crapshoot. The Orange could lose by 20 in the first round or win the whole thing, and neither outcome would surprise me.
But, for one night, for nearly four hours, Syracuse stood toe to toe with a team that had beaten it badly twice this season, and showed they had become men. Call last night Syracuse's bar mitzvah, the prom night when it became a man, the day the Orange learned what it takes to win on the biggest stage.
I'll call it the best basketball game I've ever seen.
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Say what you want about Eric Devendorf - but he's as much the heart of the Syracuse Orange this season as anyone else.