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NCAA Tournament: Syracuse saved its best for last against Arizona State

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This game was very much at home within the 2017-18 season of results.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Syracuse vs. Arizona State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange played poorly on Wednesday night against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

That is an understatement. And yet, it didn’t matter in the end. Syracuse won, 60-56 and will march on to the NCAA Tournament’s first round and a matchup with the TCU Horned Frogs.

At the start of the game, everything seemed to be going as planned. ASU settled for long threes at the end of the shot clock. The middle looked fairly open on the other end. The pace favored Syracuse, which had a 12-11 lead 10 minutes in.

However, it wasn’t that easy. SU failed to exploit their size advantage, especially at the guard spots (so much so the broadcast team was also expressing surprise the Orange weren’t doing it). Arizona State hit just enough threes to keep things pretty close. And some early fouls and turnovers seemed to will the Sun Devils to stay close.

At 30-28 through 20 minutes, you could see some cracks for the Orange zone, while the offense seemed incapable of growing a two-point lead, never mind erasing a deficit.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Syracuse vs. Arizona State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The early part of the second half was a worst-case scenario, and felt like a death knell at one point. Arizona State led 36-30 within 90 seconds. Syracuse seemed to content to shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly. Even when after the Orange worked to close that gap, a 49-42 advantage for the Sun Devils popped up with just seven minutes to go. It felt like a mountain.

Until it didn’t.

Despite a terrible shooting game through 33 minutes, those final seven featured a 6-of-8 shooting performance, plus 7-of-10 on free throws. Compared to 41 percent shooting on the game, and a clip just over 50 percent from the line, this simply didn’t seem possible.

But Syracuse, as they have for much of the season, turned it on with entire season hanging in the balance. The offense, a complete liability, suddenly looked efficient and methodical. Defensively, the intensity was also turned up for SU, leading to just seven points over that final stretch.

The defense had dictated the pace throughout the game, but also showed holes here and there. Those didn’t disappear completely as the game’s final minutes ticked down. However, you saw a change in execution. Even as ASU was finding ways to drive the lane, everything was made more difficult. The Sun Devils made just three of their final 10 shots.

In some ways, all of this is frustrating to recount. This matchup favored Syracuse, and Arizona State played right into what would work. The Sun Devils couldn’t push the tempo, they took long threes, they weren’t driving the lane. Syracuse had room to operate in the middle if it chose, yet didn’t. Those are all missed opportunities that would’ve hurt against better opponents.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Four-Syracuse vs. Arizona State Brian Spurlock -USA TODAY Sports

Yet, there are also so many good signs, too. The early fouls could’ve completely derailed SU the way they did against UNC in the ACC Tournament, yet they didn’t. Oshae Brissett’s bad fall in the first half could’ve created a very different result. The offense only shot above 40 percent due to the final couple minutes of success. Arizona State did get a handle on how to attack the zone and just couldn’t make it happen down the stretch. That final three for Arizona State almost went in.

Syracuse held a top-15 offense to 56 points on 40 percent shooting.

In some ways, this is exactly what we’d expect from Syracuse this year. In others, it may also be a sign of what could be for the Orange. No, you can’t expect the level of play from those final seven minutes to replicate themselves for full games against better opponents. But they also hint at what’s possible when things are clicking for SU.

There are no “easy” games left this year. It’s all steep challenges from here on out. Whether we win no more games or six more, this team is likely to show us the upper limit of what they can achieve. We just have to hope that part outweighs the lows enough to keep outlasting opponents.