The stage had been set. The Virginia Cavaliers were in complete control, imposing their efficient brand of basketball on the Syracuse Orange. In the first half, they assisted on 11 of their 12 made field goals. They made 48 percent of their shots and that's with an 0-6 start from the field. London Perrantes sunk five three pointers, each one feeling like a bigger and bigger dagger into the heart of Syracuse's season. Virginia led 35-21 at halftime.
Not much changed in the early stages of the second half. Syracuse inched closer a few times, only to see the experienced Cavaliers calmly and swiftly snuff out all of their runs. The end of a magical Syracuse tournament run now seemed inevitable. After all, this Virginia team is one of the most methodical and efficient in the entire country. They rarely make mistakes and their slowdown style of play makes a double-digit deficit nearly impossible to overcome.
Enter the Syracuse full-court press defense. It is a tactic that Jim Boeheim likes to use in short bursts when his team needs to shake things up in the pace of a game. At halftime yesterday, Boeheim knew he was going to have to employ the press at some point in the second half. With about 10 minutes remaining and their season on the line, he made the call.
On the season Virginia's average offensive possession lasted 20.1 seconds, which was 348th fastest out of 351 teams. During the stretch when they were being pressed in this game? 10.3 seconds.
Their average defensive possession during the season lasted 18.7 seconds, which also ranks 348th fastest. During that same stretch? 12.5 seconds.
It started off ugly, however. Virginia cut right through the press and Perrantes drilled his sixth three-pointer of the game, giving the Cavs a 54-39 lead with 9:33 left on the clock. Boeheim kept the press on, and not even out of any type of strategy. At that point, Syracuse's desperation meant he simply had no choice.
"We weren't going to cut a 15-point lead against Virginia down by playing half-court. The best we could hope for is to lose the game by seven, six or seven, if we play well. IF we play well...But you have to take your chance. It doesn't matter whether you lose by 7 or 20; it's still you are going home".
Syracuse took that chance and are moving on because of it. The Cavaliers, those same experienced, methodical, and poised Cavaliers, started to make mistakes. Malcolm Brodgon missed a layup after Virginia had beaten the press. Anthony Gill committed a turnover. Then Michael Gbinije stole the ball. After nailing a three-pointer to cut the lead to 58-52 with 7:15 left in the game, Malachi Richardson got a steal of his own. Off a London Perrantes out of bounds play that got away from him, Richardson jumped up near the sideline, grabbed the ball as it was going out of bounds, did a 360 in midair, and threw the ball off Malcolm Brogdon, giving the Orange possession.
12 seconds later, Tyler Lydon connected from three to bring the Virginia lead down to just three, 58-55. On their next two possessions, Gbinije and Richardson made a couple of layups to give Syracuse the lead, 59-58. It was their first lead since they were winning 8-5 just under seven minutes into the game. It was one they would never relinquish.
It was no coincidence that Syracuse closed the game on a 29-8 run in the final 9:33, the time frame that coincided with the Orange starting their full-court press. In a game that looked like the final script had already been written, down by 15, Syracuse needed to change something about the pace of the game. The press allowed them to do just that.
"The press definitely gave us life. I think it turned the game around, and we did a great job of just hustling and competing during the press".
But it was about more than just infusing life into a Syracuse team on the brink of season's end. Remember those possession statistics from earlier? Virginia plays at one of the slowest paces in the entire country. It's one of the primary reasons why they are so difficult to come back against. They take their time on offense, and they smother you on defense, forcing you to take your time to find the right shot, which you may never find.
The Syracuse press caused Virginia to play their offense about twice as fast as normal, which not only got the Cavs out of their offensive rhythm, it conserved time for an Orange team trying to make a double-digit comeback.
It was the Virginia defense, though, that saw the biggest change due to the Syracuse full-court press. Virginia absolutely smothers and harasses you defensively. They make it incredibly difficult just to get a clean look at the basket. Each defender is able to win their individual defensive assignment. They held Syracuse to 39 points in the first 31 minutes. The final 9 minutes, when the Orange started pressing, saw Malachi Richardson and his teammates score 29 points.
29 points in 9 minutes. How does this happen, especially when that team only scored 10 more points than that in the first 31 minutes? Well, the Orange got hot, and they found a rhythm. One of the reasons they were able to do that was because Virginia could not get set in their normal defense because they were caught out due to the press, which is just what the doctor ordered for Syracuse. With a suddenly more open offensive end, the Orange found their shooting stroke.
The press changed the entire fortune of the game for both teams. The bounces started going Syracuse's way. The three's started raining in. Virginia all of a sudden couldn't find the bucket, scoring only eight points in the same stretch when Syracuse was scoring 29.
"When you're down like that, you can only go up. We were playing with house money. There was no pressure. We just wanted to go out swinging".
If the Syracuse Orange went out swinging, then their full-court press was the knockout blow that ended Virginia's season and sent them into the Final Four.