Syracuse advanced to the Final Four for the fourth time under coach Jim Boeheim. (Al Tielemans/SI)
WASHINGTON D.C. – After a week-long sendoff in New York at the Big East tournament, the old league got a final curtain call in the Elite Eight when Syracuse ended up matched up with Marquette.
With all the weepy prose and sappy nostalgia in New York, it became easy to overlook that the Big East built itself on being tougher than a Riker's Island prison guard, more physical than a sumo wrestling summit.
As Marquette and Syracuse slogged through an offensively offensive game, it became reasonable to expect President Obama -- watching from a Verizon Center suite -- to propose emergency legislation for some shooting stimulus.
Trading blows for the Big East one last time, and with Dave Gavitt assuredly smiling up above, the Orange outslugged Marquette, 55-39, for the program's fourth Final Four appearance under coach Jim Boeheim. The Orange will play the winner of Sunday's game in the South Region between No. 4 Michigan and No. 3 Florida.
James Southerland led Syracuse with 16 points and a Michael Carter-Williams flurry midway through the second half allowed Syracuse to pull away.
Syracuse, quite simply, did it with defense -- the type the Big East was built on. The Orange jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first half on Marquette and lured one of the country's worst three-point shooting teams into firing them relentlessly. Marquette finished No. 313 nationally in three-point percentage and wisely attempted just six against Miami in the Round of 16.
But after falling behind, the Golden Eagles kept shooting and missing, hitting 3-for-25 for the game. Syracuse's four NCAA tournament opponents have hit 14-for-92 from three-point range, an amazing display of defensive fortitude.
"Our defense won this game," Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins said, awaiting the cutting of the Final Four net.
Syracuse resuscitated its season after losing four of its final five games in the regular season, making a run in New York and regaining form in time for the NCAA tournament.
The nadir of Syracuse's late-season swoon came here against Georgetown, when it scored just 39 points on this very floor in a blowout loss. This time around, Syracuse didn't put forth an offensive masterpiece, but pulled away in the second half as Marquette couldn't muster any offensive consistency.
Hopkins fingered the game's turning point: When C.J. Fair ripped a ball away from Marquette's Vander Blue with 11:25 remaining. That led to a transition layup for James Southerland, who was fouled on the play and hit the free throw. That bumped a seven-point lead to 10, and Marquette never got close from there.
"It was definitely big," Southerland said, "because I definitely thought the momentum changed and that's when we secured our lead."
And as the old Big East relished its last call for bruises, bricks and elbows, the weekend offered a reminder of what made the old league so great. Both Marquette and Syracuse won their Round of 16 games by simply being bigger, stronger and more physical than their opponents. Miami, the ACC Champion, had no answer for Marquette's ornery style of play. And Indiana looked overwhelmed and overmatched -- from Jordan Hulls to Cody Zeller -- by the length and strength of Syracuse's zone.
In a weekend, the games offered a composite snapshot of what made the Big East the biggest and baddest league on the block for nearly three decades.
Marquette used superior rebounding and grit to stay in the game after falling behind by as many as 12 points in the first half. For 30 minutes, Marquette lurked thanks to the play of reserve big man Davonte Gardner.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams downplayed Gardner's big game against Syracuse in the regular season, as Gardner hit all seven of his shots and finished with 26 points. (He also hit 12-of-13 on free throws.)
"He played really well that night, you're right," Williams said. "I don't think he'll play that well again, and that's only because he's never played that well before or since."
Gardner tested his coach's theory in the first half, hitting his first four shots from the field and finishing the half with nine points. (Gardner was clearly fouled on his fifth attempt, his only miss in three halves against Syracuse this year.) Gardner finished with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
Gardner's output represented half of Marquette's points, as it trailed 24-18 at the half after falling behind by double digits. But Marquette crawled back in to make it a game, something it had a habit of doing in this NCAA tournament.
Marquette's improbable NCAA tournament run really began in its final minute against Davidson. The Golden Eagles trailed by five with less than 30 seconds remaining. A fantastic flurry, culminated by a Vander Blue layup in the final seconds, propelled Marquette from DOA in the NCAAs all the way to the Elite Eight.
Marquette grinded past Butler in the Round of 32 and annihilated Miami in the Round of 16, making the ACC Champions look like a November buy-game appetizer.
But Marquette's execution overshadowed its offensive flaws in the first three games. And when facing a team that matched its size and physicality, Marquette looked overmatched.
And in this final last call for the Big East, the possibility lingers for just another. Syracuse's zone has been suffocating enough where a matchup with Louisville in the national title game isn't out of the question.