Every loss in the NCAA Tournament is painful, and West Virginia’s 75-72 defeat at the hands of Syracuse Sunday in the second round of the Big Dance certainly was a very tough one for the Mountaineers.
“They shot it extremely well,” noted WVU head coach Bob Huggins of the Orange, who made 14 of its 31 3-point attempts. “It seemed like everything they shot up went in, and they shot it from deep. We wanted to make them bounce it, but we didn’t. We let them get too many step-in shots.”
With the loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, WVU’s season comes to an end with a 19-10 record. It was the sixth time in seven tries that Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers have fallen to Jim Boeheim’s Orange, going back to the days when the two were Big East rivals.
This time instead of names like Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick and Carmelo Anthony doing the damage for the ‘Cuse, it was the coach’s own son, Buddy Boeheim.
The SU guard lit West Virginia up for 25 points on Sunday, 22 of those coming in the second half when Syracuse needed them all to hold off a WVU charge.
The Orange forged a 26-12 lead midway through the first half, as its 2-3 zone defense stymied the Mountaineers, forcing them into 11 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
“I think we ran what we needed to run. We just didn’t score it,” stated Huggins. “How many shots inside of three or four feet did we miss to start the game? They had a lot to do with that, but when you catch it going at the basket from three or four feet, you ought to make one. We didn’t make any.”
Eventually West Virginia settled down and started to claw its way back into the game, pulling to within six at halftime, 35-29.
WVU kept charging in the second half, even going ahead by a point on a Sean McNeil layup at the 9:47 mark. West Virginia also had just three turnovers in the second half, as it began to solve the riddle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.
“I knew it was coming. They’re too good of a team to not score and be tentative on offense,” Buddy Boehiem said of West Virginia’s comeback. “Once McNeil got going, we knew to really get on him. He’s a great shooter. He elevates on his shots. All you can do is contest and hope he misses it. He got going. Our biggest adjustment was getting out on him.
“We did a really good job just forcing them to make tough twos, letting them take tough jumpers inside, contesting shots, wherever it was.
“They scored. I mean, they scored 43 points in the second half, but we just made adjustments and kept playing,” the SU junior added. “I think the biggest thing was, every time they scored we just answered every time and got a tough bucket. Eventually, they missed a couple, and we kept scoring.”
Most of that clutch scoring came from Boeheim.
The game was tied at 56-56 after a Taz Sherman three from the corner with 7:17 remaining, but then the coach’s son took charge.
He made just one of his seven shots in the first half, but converted seven-of-11 in the second half, including five-of-eight from 3-point range. He also made three-of-four free throws in the final 21 seconds to seal the Syracuse win. Thus SU improved its record 18-9, sending it on to its 24th Sweet 16 appearance in school history. The Orange will meet Houston (26-3) in the Sweet 16 round next Saturday.
“They shot the ball really well. Buddy shot it extremely well,” said Huggins. “He had a stretch where I think he made three consecutive threes. We were trying to catch up from then on.”
West Virginia’s comeback was dependent on shots from the perimeter, as it had very little success inside the ‘Cuse zone. WVU’s all-Big 12 forward Derek Culver made just two of his nine field goal attempts and finished with only seven points. In all, the Mountaineers made just 15-of-44 2-point shots, including a mere one-of-13 in the lane.
They were able to build their comeback on 3-point shooting (11-of-26 as a team), especially that of McNeil, who hit seven-of-13 attempts from beyond the arch en route to his 23 points.
“Syracuse’s zone probably bothered us a little more than we expected,” admitted McNeil, whose 69 made 3-pointers this season tie for the 15th most in school history. “We struggled in the first half, didn’t get many good looks and turned the ball over, things like that and it ended up hurting us.”
Three other Mountaineers finished in double figures in the scoring column besides McNeil. Emmitt Matthews had 14 points, while Sherman and Deuce McBride had 11 each. After scoring 30 points in Friday’s first-round victory over Morehead State, McBride had eight points in the first half against Syracuse but was limited to just three in the second, as McNeil, with 17 points in the period, did most of the offensive damage for WVU.
“It was a great win. West Virginia’s got a great team,” said Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who is now 23-6 all-time against the Mountaineers in his 45 seasons as Syracuse’s head coach. “I thought defensively we were really, really good for most of the game. We let McNeil get loose a little bit, and he hit some tough threes, and they got on the boards (with WVU winning the rebounding battle 41-29). We made some turnovers we don’t usually make, but at the end of the day, we won the game. So it’s a great win.”