For the first eight minutes of the Syracuse Orange's first round NCAA Tournament game against the Dayton Flyers, it looked like deja vu all over again. Neither team was hitting shots to star the game, the Orange were turning it over with regularity, but Dayton seemed to be doing just enough to stay ahead.
Then, the SU defense clamped down and seemingly never looked back en route to a dominating 70-51 win.
From the time the scoreboard read 15-10 in favor of Dayton (10:42 remaining in the first half) until the final buzzer, Syracuse held Dayton to just 36 points. The Flyers, who shot just 32 percent from the floor on the game, would score just 23 points in the second half -- 19 of those in the final seven minutes.
It was a team effort for Syracuse on both ends of the floor, avoiding the tired and ineffective strategy of just relying on senior Michael Gbinije to carry the team through. While Silent G tossed in 10 points, 7 rebounds and four assists on his own, four other Syracuse players also tallied double-digit point totals. Freshman Malachi Richardson led all scorers with 21 before fouling out with two minutes remaining. Tyler Lydon added 14 off the bench (including 5-of-6 from the line). Trevor Cooney rebounded from an early cold streak from the floor to end up with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting, and even Tyler Roberson kicked in 10 points. Where Roberson's real impact was felt, however, was on the boards.
You know that Roberson, when he's not in the Jim Boeheim doghouse, can take control of a game on the glass -- especially offensive rebounds. Against Dayton, who has a size disadvantage against SU, he channeled his performance against Duke, grabbing 18 (and eight on offense). Roberson's performance was a huge part of the Orange's 48-to-28 advantage on the boards for the game. His 18 boards were one short of tying Derrick Coleman's 19 back in 1987 (vs. Indiana) for the most in SU tournament history.
Oh, and the Orange went 20-of-23 from the line, something that was especially helpful when the Flyers were fouling in the closing eight minutes or so to try and cut down a 20-point lead. See? #FreeThrowsMatter
As a bubble team many questioned following the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, it was imperative that Syracuse grabbed a first-round win. The stakes were raised a bit more when the matchup was set with Dayton, who knocked the favored Orange out of the 2014 NCAAs. This one could've easily devolved into the ugly, defensive slugfest the 2014 game became -- and for a good portion of the first half, it did. But the 2015-16 Syracuse team, equipped with shooters this time around, was able to turn defense into offense and overcome the Flyers' best efforts to keep the game at their pace.
Had Syracuse lost this game, most observers wouldn't have batted an eye. They would've said it was deserved, that it was proof SU didn't belong to begin with, and then everyone would've moved on to the Michigan State game later in the day. But for us, this was much different. It was for the Syracuse players, and even Jim Boeheim too, after going through a pretty rough 15 months and change as a program.
We, as a Syracuse basketball community, needed this. We needed it to truly start moving on from the NCAA issues and the self-imposed postseason ban. We needed it to avoid "Dayton" being deemed some of Central New York's worst profanity. We needed it to once again prove -- this time, to ourselves -- that we deserved to be in the tournament this year.
Yes, Syracuse is still a 10-seed. And their likely next opponent, Michigan State, is among the favorites to win the national championship. But let's not start talking about gravy just yet. Once you get to the tournament, you win or you lose, regardless of your assigned seed. If the Spartans are truly up next, let's put enough faith in this squad to maybe stun some people in round two.
Great win today. Now go root for the Syracuse women's team in their game against Army.