At least temporarily, the Syracuse Orange saved its season on Tuesday night.
Trailing 63-50 with six-and-a-half minutes remaining against the Virginia Tech Hokies, it appeared as if Syracuse was headed for its third straight loss and its eight of the season. Such an outcome likely would have doomed the Orange, a team that wasn't even among Joe Lunardi's "next four out" in his latest bracketology and a team that hasn't even begun its toughest stretch of the season.
But, perhaps realizing that its back was against the wall, Syracuse dug deep in that final six minutes and 31 seconds. After turning to a full-court press, SU finished the game on a 22-7 run, scraping out a 72-70 victory. In that span, the Orange forced seven turnovers and held the Hokies to only one made field goal.
"This comeback ranks up there with any that I've ever been a part of," said head coach Jim Boeheim. "...It was incredible."
Michael Gbinije capped off the comeback with back-to-back plays that secured Syracuse's win.
First, the junior drove to the basket with 19 seconds left and drew a foul. With the Orange down 70-68, he made both free throws, tying the score. Gbinije, a 48 percent free throw shooter, has struggled all season from the charity stripe, yet still managed to knock down surely the two most important free throws of Syracuse's season.
"Him going to the line and making those two free throws was, I thought, pretty amazing," said Boeheim.
On the ensuing Virginia Tech possession, the Hokies committed a backcourt violation, giving the Orange the ball with seven seconds left.
Again, it was Gbinije. This time, he drove to the left block, stopped, spun and hit the game-winner, leaving Virginia Tech with just one-tenth of a second on the clock. With that bucket, he finished with 18 points to go along with four steals and a game-high seven assists.
Afterwards, the night's hero shifted the praise to his teammates.
"Honestly, I knew we had this group of guys before this game," he said, prompted by a reporter asking what he learned about the team during the comeback. "...I know we got some competitors on this team, and I'm happy to play with these guys."
And though Gbinije did hit the game's biggest shots, a number of other players did their part in the win. Chief among them was Rakeem Christmas, who filled the stat sheet with 15 points, 12 rebounds, four steals, and five blocks. Trevor Cooney struggled from three (2-of-12) but finished with 18 points and zero turnovers.
But according to Cooney, his biggest contribution was nowhere to be found in the box score. Rather, it was what he told Gbinije before he shot the game's final two free throws.
"I told him he was gonna make 'em," said Cooney. "And I guess he listened to me this time, which was good...I said, 'Mike, you're gonna make these.'"
On a team that has been the victim of second half comebacks a few times this season, Cooney seemed relieved to experience winning a game in the same fashion.
"It's a good feeling when you're on that side of a game-winner," he said. "I'm just happy for [Gbinije] that he was able to make a play."
Of course, such an exciting resurgence was preceded by a less-than-optimal performance. After holding a 34-30 halftime lead, Syracuse suffered through a 33-16 run to begin the second half, a run that saw Virginia Tech connect on seven three-pointers. Boeheim would focus a large portion of the blame on freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph, who played only 17 minutes and finished with just five points and two assists.
"In the second half, Kaleb didn't rotate four times, and they made four corner jump shots," Boeheim said. "And, you know, he's a freshman. But, at this stage of the year, you're either going to make that rotation or you're not learning. You're not doing what you need to do...That was disappointing."
Fortunately, Joseph has three full days to fix his defensive issues before Syracuse's next game. The Orange travel to Pennsylvania to battle the Pittsburgh Panthers on Saturday in another crucial ACC matchup. Tipoff from the Petersen Events Center is slated for 4:00pm.