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Syracuse 68, Virginia 62: Defense Does It Again, Leads Orange to Final Four

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AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

We did it. We EFFING DID IT.

Looking up at a huge deficit at halftime, and another one with under 10 to go, the Syracuse Orange could've folded. Instead, the defense stepped up, the Orange pressed like they've never pressed before and Syracuse somehow found themselves on the right side of a 68-62 victory over the Virginia Cavaliers.

The Syracuse Orange -- THIS Syracuse Orange team are headed to the Final Four.

There's going to be plenty of waxing poetic during the week around how this occurred and how special this is for Jim Boeheim, these players and this program. For this post, at least, we're focusing in the ebbs and flows that caused this improbable victory.

Some may have mistaken the start of the contest for Friday night's win over Gonzaga. Following a stretch that showed off Syracuse's zone at its best, the Hoos rode London Perrantes and his hot hand from three to a double-digit lead. SU was having trouble putting the ball in the basket, or holding onto it in general. This was the moment in the Zags game where SU clamped down, started hitting shots and cut a once-large lead to one.

It didn't happen in the first half. In fact, the Hoos extended the lead, taking a 35-21 advantage into the locker room. Things looked pretty dire at the half. Syracuse had no answer for what Virginia was doing at either end -- playing inside/outside on offense and keeping SU completely outside the paint on defense.

And it continued into the first 10-12 minutes of the second half too. Virginia was hitting shots, Syracuse was starting to look rattled and fell behind by as much as 15. Down 54-39, Jim Boeheim ordered up the press that worked so flawlessly in comebacks against Gonzaga, Virginia Tech and others all season.

Starting slow, the team began to work the ball into the paint. The lead cut down to 11 within a minute, and seven within two. Beyond just pressing, Syracuse was forcing a methodical and slow Virginia team into a transition offense that led to turnovers and quick baskets. The Hoos were out of their element. Malachi Richardson then took control.

Maybe you expected Gbinije? You couldn't be blamed there, honestly. It seemed destined, especially after Richardson started this game so poorly himself. But the frosh would score 14 of his game-high 23 points in the final nine minutes, including two HUGE threes that served as much in terms of momentum as they did on the scoreboard. By the 5:51 mark, Syracuse had roared all the way back to take the lead -- which they hadn't held since seven minutes into the first half. They never gave it up again.

***

The story whenever we talk about this team from now until forever will be the tenacity they displayed on the defensive end. Timely free throws (for once) played a part, as did some sudden hot shooting from Richardson and an inability to adjust by Virginia. But the defense -- and specifically, the press, is what set up the comeback and ultimately delivered the win.

Syracuse managed 11 (!!!) steals. They forced 13 turnovers overall. They held yet another opponent under 30 points in the second half, as Virginia had 27 -- and just six points total over the final eight and a half minutes. The Orange outrebounded UVa by two (which is more than a win). They collected 12 offensive boards.

They wouldn't quit. Syracuse scored 47 points in the second half. Of those, 29 came in the final nine minutes and change. They used the athletes at their disposal and pushed one of the best defensive teams in the country to their limit and then broke them. The Orange imposed their will in a way you shouldn't be able to against a No. 1-seed. We've heard that before (HI INDIANA). It doesn't make it any less entertaining to see it happen again.

***

The work's far from done, but this was a landmark victory for this program. Finally an underdog, Syracuse has embraced its best role yet and is now just two wins away from the most unlikely, unpredictable championships of all time. Everyday is a good day to be Orange. This one, however, manages to be better than most.

Enjoy it, everybody. Hope to see you in Houston.