BOSTON -- Twenty minutes after the loss, Wisconsin sophomore guard Josh Gasser sat in a folding chair in the Badgers' locker room at TD Garden. Hands clasped together as if praying, head down, still fully dressed as if there was more basketball to play. When he looked up to answer a question, his eyes were swollen because he had probably been crying and his voice gurgled up from his throat, as if he was suffering from a nasty cold. "One or two more stops,'' said Gasser. "One or two more shots to fall.'' And this is what a one-point loss in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament looks like.
It's possible that 11 days from now, on the first Monday night in April in New Orleans, Syracuse will win the national title. Perhaps the Orange will beat Kentucky or somebody who has already beaten Kentucky, but whoever it is, Syracuse is good enough to beat them. They have half a dozen offensive players who can break down any opponents' best defender -- "What, three, four pros out there?'' said Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor, who fits that description himself -- and they have a confounding defense that is more than two simple numbers (two-three) and expands and contracts like a Slinky, depending on the challenge in front of it.
And if that happens, basketball archeologists measuring what the Orange did in giving coach Jim Boeheim his second title will think back to what happened in Boston on Thursday night, a 64-63 victory, and surmise that it was the win that made a title seem possible. "This is one of the best games I've been involved with in a long time,'' said Boeheim. "I think [it was] the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn't beat us.''
It was a game in which Syracuse seemed to have taken full control late in the first half, assuming a 33-23 lead on senior point guard Scoop Jardine's three-point shot from the top with 2:29 left until halftime. Wisconsin, a famously disciplined and tough-minded team that doesn't so much play games as beat them into submission, had hung early, but now seemed on the brink of getting run out of the regionals. The Badgers are not built for comebacks.
The storyline on Syracuse had been clearly defined during the season: Winning 31 games despite the "distraction'' of sexual abuse charges against longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine. The post-season storyline had been just as obvious: Trying to parlay that great regular season into a national title despite the loss of 7-foot sophomore center Fab Melo, reportedly because of academic eligibility issues. (Syracuse has not said why Melo is ineligible, only that he is ineligible).
By the time Jardine's shot fell on Thursday night, all that seemed insignificant. Sophomore forward C.J. Fair, a willowy 6-8, had shot 1-for-10 in the entire subregional last weekend in Pittsburgh, but in the first half made three of his four shots in a very good 17 minutes. "It went my way tonight,'' Fair said in the Syracuse locker room after the game. "I just needed to get a bucket to get it going.'' Fair would finish with 15 points and seven rebounds, both team highs.
Sophomore Dion Waiters, who often looks like the best player on the floor (or a lot of other floors), had an explosive nine points in the first half and would finish with 14. Jardine was running the show. The Garden was rocking with a heavy pro-Syracuse crowd, Carrier Dome East. Fab who?
Then something remarkable happened, something that would transform this Sweet 16 game into something entirely unlike the defensive slog that had been predicted by many foolish pundits (guilty).
From the 30-second mark of the first half until just two ticks over seven minutes remained in the game, Wisconsin outscored Syracuse, 36-23. In the first 13 minutes of the second half, the Badgers made nine of 13 three-point shots, including four by Taylor. "Some really hard threes,'' said Boeheim. "Really hard threes.'' (On the game, Wisconsin made 14 three-pointers and took five more threes, 27, than two-point shots). They took a three-point lead and ensured that the game would be close until the finish.
There would be back-to-back baskets by Waiters to give Syracuse the lead and then extend it to 62-59 with 4:46 to play. There would be two free throws by Jardine with 3:50 left, keeping the lead at three and then a huge rebound by Fair at the two-minute mark. But Gasser would hit two foul shots with 31.7 seconds left to bring Wisconsin within a point and then Syracuse senior Kris Joseph would clank a front end with 18.9 seconds to give Wisconsin a chance.
And that is where the game took a turn for the indecipherable. If Syracuse lore will someday recall this as the game that launched a title run (but let's not forget about North Carolina-Asheville, shout out to the Bulldogs, a sketchy officials call away from history of their own), Wisconsin will remember it very differently, as an opportunity lost and a chance not taken.
After Joseph's miss, Wisconsin took possession with 15.5 seconds left, inbounding underneath the Syracuse basket. There was a moment's pause. Wisconsin had one time out left, but coach Bo Ryan did not use it. Instead, very late in the exchange, he sent senior center Jared Berggren to the scorer's table. It was a logical move; Berggren had scored 17 points and helped skillfully orchestrate Wisconsin's offense from the high post.
"Of course, you want Jared in there,'' said Taylor.
But Ryan was late with the sub and Berggren wasn't allowed into the game. "The official was putting the ball in play,'' said Berggren. "It was too late.'' Berggren sat down in front of the table, leaning forward, still poised like a man about to enter the game. Ryan could have used a time out to get him onto the floor, but did not.
His explanation: "It was OK,'' Ryan said. "It was a one-point game and who's scrappier than [junior forward] Mike Brusewitz [who had gone into the game on Joseph's free throw]? It worked out OK. We were fine with it. There wasn't any panic. A lot of guys wanted to be in there at the end.''
There wasn't a whole lot of execution, either. There was a desperate, awkward possession in which Syracuse guards Jardine and Waiters, on the top of the 2-3, didn't allow Wisconsin to enter the ball to the corner, where the Badgers had been so effective all night. And they didn't allow them to quickly reverse it for a shot from the elbow. "They did a job rotating their guards,'' said Taylor. "They walled off the reversal.''
But, critically, there was no Berggren in the high post as a safety valve for Taylor. No Berggren in the high post, forcing Syracuse's guard to drop just a step deeper and the Orange's backline to creep up a step more. There was a very deep three by a very good player and it did not go in. We were fine with it, the coach said. A lot of guys wanted to be in there at the end.
Most of them were sitting on chairs. Only one of them was sitting on hardwood.