By Mike Jensen, The Philadelphia Inquirer –
BOSTON — Just off the TD Garden court, Scoop Jardine put his head against his father, both rubbing the back of the other’s head, smiling and loving the moment.
“I really want to cry, but I’m going to hold it in,” the Syracuse point guard told his father, Tony. Jardine had just experienced what had to be the biggest victory of his collegiate career, and by a razor’s edge avoided it being the last game of his career.
The Orange are into the NCAA Elite Eight for the first time in nine years because they forced a tough last shot out of a hot team, getting past Wisconsin, 64-63, in a thriller that saw the losers make 14 three-pointers, including six in a row in the second half. Syracuse will take on Ohio State, an 81-66 winner over Cincinnati, on Saturday.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve been involved in a long time,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think the best game anyone ever played against us and didn’t beat us.”
“It’s hard to beat a team that’s making 14 threes,” Jardine pointed out.
How did the top-seeded and now 34-2 Orange do it?
“Every time they scored, I think we scored right back,” said Jardine, one of four Syracuse players in double figures, with 14 points, as the Orange shot 55 percent in this East Regional semifinal. “That’s what you’ve got to do … never get rattled.”
Syracuse forward C.J. Fair (15 points) was the biggest difference-maker, making 7 of 9 shots, leading both teams with seven rebounds, grabbing four of the six steals total that occurred in this game.
“He did a good job of taking it to the rim,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “We talked about taking charges, but you can’t simulate that speed. You think you’re getting things done, but you’re a step behind.”
Dion Waiters, usually the offensive star for Syracuse, made the big defensive play at the end, blanketing Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, causing a forced deep three from a player who made 5 of 8 before that from beyond the arc.
“I thought I got my legs into it,” Taylor said. “To see it come up short was kind of heartbreaking. They did a good job of forcing us into that.”
“Josh felt there was no more time,” Ryan said of guard Josh Gasser, who had grabbed the ball. There was still a couple of ticks left, time for “maybe a pump fake, draw a foul,” Ryan said wistfully.
He wasn’t killing his guy.
“We played well enough to have this one on our side,” said Ryan, a Chester High graduate trying to get to his second Elite Eight in 11 years at Wisconsin. “It just didn’t work out that way.”
The Orange had only five assists on their 27 baskets (four by Jardine), but that strange statistic isn’t an indicator of bad offense. They were getting what they wanted, drives to the basket off high screens. Syracuse got 30 points in the paint to just 10 for Wisconsin.
This isn’t the old Garden, and they’ve taken down all the Celtics banners for the weekend. But there must be some magic in here somewhere. The last NCAA tournament game in this arena had been a classic, the 2009 regional final when Scottie Reynolds took out Pittsburgh and took Villanova to the Final Four with his last-second heroics.
In the first half especially, Wisconsin (26-10) worked the shot clock deep. Then the Orange had a big run, scoring on seven straight possessions. Wisconsin already had used two timeouts and Ryan clearly didn’t want to burn a third to stop the momentum. That’s how Syracuse grabbed a 33-23 lead. But by halftime it was 33-27 and a couple of the Philly guys surely got blistered by Boeheim at halftime.
Rakeem Christmas, who had sat for most of the half, came in and picked up two quick fouls, one at each end. Then Jardine made a costly error, getting a pass tipped up top. Instead of a last Syracuse shot, Wisconsin got a layup before the buzzer.
In the second half, you wondered if the long defensive stands were taking their toll on Syracuse as Wisconsin’s looks suddenly got a little better and they went right around the arc nailing threes, six straight.
“For a little bit there, we had them,” Ryan said.
Wisconsin had been down by four points when it began the shooting spree. When it was over, the Badgers were up only three, and within the minute they were down one, after a Baye Keita putback and a drive by Waiters. A step-back jumper by Waiters put Syracuse up three. And Wisconsin scored only four points in the last four minutes.
When it was over, Jardine smiled even if he wanted to cry.
“That’s something, isn’t it,” said his father, relaying the words from his son.