PITTSBURGH -- The game ended early Thursday evening, like the 108 that came before it, in which a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament was matched against a No. 16. It ended with players from North Carolina-Asheville in tears on television and players from Syracuse poker-faced and posturing, as if they knew all along that it would turn out this way, when in fact for a very long time it seemed possible that it would not.
This was the first night of an uncertain postseason for the Orange, who were ranked No. 1 in the country for much of the year, by consensus the best team in the mighty Big East and a justifiable No. 1 seed in the tournament. They would play again under the cloud of controversy that has followed them all year (See: Bernie Fine. See: self-reported failed drug tests), and without 7-foot sophomore center Feb Melo, a defensive force who was declared ineligible (reportedly for academic issues) early in the week. And it almost ended right here, in a hockey arena five hours from home.
In the end, the Orange (32-2) escaped Consol Energy Arena with a 72-65 victory over an Asheville team (24-10) that won the Big South Conference and probably deserved much better than a 16 seed. Syracuse won despite trailing by seven points in the first half, by four points at halftime and despite being unable to put away Asheville until less than half a minute remained in the game. They won despite struggling against a zone defense that mirrors the one Syracuse plays and thus sees every day at practice and they won in a manner that left the distinct impression that it could have gone the other way and become one of the most stunning upsets in a tournament famous for them.
So afterward questions were framed with could have wons and should have wons. "Should have,'' said Asheville guard Matt Dickey, who had talked to SI.com a day earlier about his desperate desire to extend his career by another game and then shot one-for-13 in his final college outing. "Being up at the half, being up midway through the second half, we should have won.''
And like this, when Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was asked if he felt his team had "lucked out,'' by winning. "I don't think luck had anything to do with this game,'' Boeheim said, "and I think the better team won.''
It is tempting to draw broad conclusions from a narrow survival like Syracuse's. To assume that without Melo, the Orange are vulnerable, and because they barely beat a No. 16 seed in their first game, that they might be in trouble against Kansas State (a 70-64 winner over Southern Mississippi) on Saturday, with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
It is also perilous to walk down that path, number one, because Asheville is a very solid team, not significantly lesser than Kansas State; and number two, because the history of the tournament has taught us never to presume that one game's flaws with carry over to the next. They might. "I know we'll play better against Kansas State,'' Boeheim said. Or they might not. But it will be a new and different game.
So instead put Thursday in a box, one of those places where those who saw it will remember how close it was and how Syracuse awakened from an indifferent first half and how junior James Southerland had three three-point baskets and 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half. And also how the night turned in part on not one, not two, but three controversial plays in the second half and how those plays turned an antiseptic modern arena into a seething, emotional pit and called into question the work of the officials charged with ensuring fairness.
*Call No. 1: With 16:24 to play and Asheville leading, 39-37, Asheville's Jeremy Atkinson rebounded his own miss in traffic and was fouled on a finesse follow-up. Just as the whistle blew, Atkinson's shot kissed off the glass and was then blocked by Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas. It seemed to be an obvious goaltending call (and a chance for a three-point play), but no goaltending call was made.
(The shot was replayed on the arena's giant HD screens, inciting a thunderous -- and negative -- reaction from most fans present. It is not common practice in tournament games for television replays to be shown; usually the arena feed cuts off before that point).
*Call No. 2: With 1:20 to play and Syracuse holding a 62-58 lead, Orange senior point guard Scoop Jardine, a 49 percent free throw shooter, was fouled. Jardine missed the front end of a one-and-one and Asheville senior guard J.P. Primm raced in from outside the lane to grab the rebound.
But Primm was called for moving before the ball hit the rim, a violation that awarded Jardine a do-over. This time Jardine made the free throw and the bonus, extending Syracuse's lead to six. Again the replay was shown to the crowd. And although this replay seemed to suggest that Primm had jumped slightly early, it is a call that is seldom made, and the crowd roared its disapproval. "I think the crowd let him know that it wasn't the right call,'' said Primm, who led the Bulldogs with 18 points.
(Dickey said he went to one of the officials immediately after the call and asked if perhaps the official had become confused because Jardine's miss had bounced high off the back rim. "He said no,'' Dickey said. "He said J.P. just left too early.'')
After the game, official Ed Corbett said of that play, "It was a clear violation. We watched the replay 20 times and it was the right call.''
*Call No. 3: With 38 seconds to play, Primm made two free throws to bring Asheville within 66-63. The Bulldogs immediately pressured hard in the backcourt. Syracuse's C.J. Fair threw a shaky inbounds pass to the right side of the floor, in front of the Asheville bench. The Orange's Brandon Triche sprinted up the sideline toward Fair to catch the pass, but it deflected off his hands and out of bounds just as he made contact with Primm, who was trying to intercept. The ball was awarded to Syracuse with 34.8 seconds left.
Again, there were replays. And again, the replays seemed to show that the ball clearly went off Triche."I don't know who touched it right after me, but I touched it,'' said Triche, in a moment of abject candor. "The ref said it was not off me. The ref called it off them. So somebody must have touched it after me.''
Official Corbett would not comment on the play, because it is not reviewable under NCAA rules. "It is a judgment call,'' said Corbett. And again, the crowd rendered its own judgment, raining boos down on the floor. Boeheim said it wasn't an issue. "We've been in some noisy places where the crowd has not been with us,'' he said. "You know it's not something that we haven't been able to handle.''
That was surely true again. Following the Triche call, Syracuse made six consecutive free throws (two each from Jardine, Triche and senior Kris Joseph) to keep Asheville at bay. "We made some shots, we knocked down our free throws,'' said Southerland. "That's why we won.''
And that is fair. In defeat, Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach barely held his rage, twice asking -- jokingly, but not entirely -- if he could be given a longer cooling-off period before discussing the game.
It is said that March brings energy like no other month, that it brings excitement and joy to a sport that is hidden for much of the season, in a losing battle with its football counterparts in the NFL and NCAA. But it brings pain like no other month, as well. It is a cruel and bloody single elimination tournament and it cares not about the vagaries of the game and the men who officiate it. Syracuse plays on and Asheville goes home.
Matt Dicken stood near a dressing cubicle in the Asheville locker room. "We could make excuses,'' he said. "But I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to blame it on the officials.'' He wore a sleeveless black undershirt and in his right hand held a balled-up game jersey that he will not wear again.