The 2015-2016 Syracuse Orange season was supposed to be over weeks ago. Three weeks ago according to many. Two weeks ago according to most. Instead, it ends with a loss to a 1-seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament Final Four. All things considered, that'll do Orange. That'll do.
Unlike Gonzaga and Virginia, the North Carolina Tar Heels were too good at breaking down the 2-3 zone and too good at forcing the Orange into low percentage shots. Unfortunately for the Orange, free throws were among the low percentage shots on the night as SU went 4-of-13 from the line. Couple that with a mediocre shooting night all around and it just wasn't enough this time around.
The game actually started out pretty well for Syracuse. The game slowed down to SU's pace and the two teams traded baskets (and misses) for ten minutes. Then the Heels were able to speed things up while also letting the Orange accumulate fouls en route to a 9-0 run that opened things up. Michael Gbinije's rough start and the lack of any one Orange player stepping up on the scoring sheet meant that even when SU got it together, they still couldn't get too close. They went into the locker room down eleven, 39-28.
Based on the previous two games, we hoped that the Orange would bring that patented second-half energy with them. They did, to an extent. The problem is that North Caroline brought it too. They started making it look easy, taking advantage of Syracuse's lack of strength in the paint. Every possession seemed to end with two points for Caroline, nullifying any points that the Orange were able to score.
Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson certainly tried his best in the second half, spurring on a comeback about halfway through. But North Carolina had answers for every point they scored and then some. As if preordained, the Heels were 0-12 from three-point range until Syracuse started inching back. All of a sudden they were unstoppable from beyond the arc. That kind of night.
Say what you want about Cooney but he went down fighting more than anyone else. He balanced his three-point shooting with drives to the hoop in a way we all wish we'd seen from him his entire career. Still, after his valiant 22-point effort in this game and everything he's done in the tournament, the narrative that dogged him for so long shouldn't follow him into his post-Orange career.
Richardson added 17 points of his own and Tyler Roberson added nine rebounds.
Gbinije, unfortunately, didn't have the kind of game he wanted to end his Syracuse career with. He scored twelve points but was a non-factor most of the evening, fouling out with a little over a minute left.
Ultimately, the Orange had no answer for Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson. At least one of them wide open at any given time and points seemed to come easy. Too easy. It honestly felt like they didn't miss one shot in the second half. And every time Syracuse made a run, they answered immediately. All four finished in double figures.
It's never fun to watch your team lose, especially when they get that close to the title, but we can take some modicum of solace in the fact that the Orange went way further than anyone ever expected and proved the resilency and heart of this squad time and time over. It's a team that reminded us that you can never give up no matter how grim it looks, and that all you need is a chance. Whether or not others want to believe the hype is ultimately meaningless so long as you win. And this team did that went it mattered.
Thanks for a great season (somehow). Thanks for representing Syracuse University. Thanks for making this so much fun.