Down by as many as 16 points in the second half, Syracuse could see the game–and their Final Four hopes–slipping away. The storybook run set to come to a close. Critics already preparing their "Syracuse Got Lucky," "Syracuse Shouldn't Have Made the Tournament," "See, This is What Happens When Syracuse Plays a REAL Opponent," storylines.
Throughout the course of the entire season, whenever Syracuse ran into trouble late, the Orange could always rely on its leader in fifth-year senior Michael Gbinije. Every time Syracuse has needed some sort of late-game offensive production, it has always been able to count on Gbinije–every time, that is, except for this one.
Because in Syracuse's most important game of the season, one with Final Four implications, Michael Gbinije was nowhere to be found. From start to finish, Gbinije struggled against Virginia's imposing defense, finishing the game with only 11 points on four-of-13 shooting from the field and missing all four of his three-point attempts.
No, in the biggest game of the season, Syracuse was unable to turn to Michael Gbinije. Instead, the Orange looked towards its athletic but wildly inconsistent freshman, Malachi Richardson. Richardson has been a streaky shooter all year, and Sunday night was no exception as the 6' 6" freshman scored 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to lift the Orange to a 68-62 comeback win over Virginia and into the Final Four.
Gbinije, himself, recognized how vital Richardson was to the team's win Sunday due to his own poor scoring night, and praised the freshman in his post-game interview on TBS.
"This man right here [pointing towards Richardson] stepped up so big for us," Gbinije said. "He put us on his back today."
To even describe Richardson as "wildly inconsistent" is an understatement. In Syracuse's opening round 70-51 blowout win over Dayton, Richardson was the one who led the charge, finishing with a game-high 21 points. However, Richardson disappeared in Syracuse's next two games. Against Middle Tennessee, he finished with a measly four points, shooting one-of-seven from the field. In Syracuse's Sweet 16 matchup against Gonzaga, Richardson struggled again, finishing the game with 10 points, but shooting just three-of-12 from the field to get there.
In the first half of Syracuse's eventual 68-62 comeback win over Virginia, Richardson struggled shooting the ball yet again. While the entire Syracuse Orange team seemed incapable of scoring, Richardson was arguably the team's biggest culprit, finishing the half with just two points while missing all five of his field goal attempts.
With Syracuse down 35-21 at the half, and not a single player able to hit a shot–Richardson included–it appeared that Syracuse would finally bow out of the tournament, following a respectable and impressive three-win showing.
And then Richardson hit two free throws. And then two more. And then a three-pointer–his first field goal of the game. Two more free throws. A layup. Another three-pointer. Another layup, this one giving Syracuse a one-point lead. A third three-pointer. And then his last bucket, another layup, which increased Syracuse's lead to six–a lead they would never relinquish.
Upon earning his fifth Final Four appearance, Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim said in his post-game interview that he has never been more proud of a team than he was of this 2016 squad which just reached the Final Four, and credited Richardson for helping lead them there.
"Malachi took over for about five minutes and got us back in the game," Boeheim said.
If Richardson is able to duplicate his second half performance over the course of an entire game, Syracuse may be able to reach the NCAA tournament finals–or better yet, take home its second NCAA championship. At the rate of this improbable magical run, would you even be surprised?
Watch Syracuse's Elite Eight celebration here: