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Szuba: A personal retelling of the 2006 Big East Tournament

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Things have come full circle once more.

New York, NY — With Syracuse headed down to New York for the latest installment of the ACC Tournament, it’s hard for me not to reflect on the old Big East Tournament. We’ve revisited and rehashed the old Big East ad naseum and while it’s fun to resurrect the memories of the Big East every time Syracuse comes to New York, it’s a storyline that’s becoming tiresome and drawn out to say the minimum.

But before that redundant narrative is officially dead and buried, I wanted to retell my personal story of experiencing the 2006 Big East Tournament in person. I was lucky enough to cover part of the ACC Tournament last year in Brooklyn and I can’t help but feel like it’s a full circle moment for me.

Back in March of 2006, I was then just a 14-year-old Syracuse kid being initiated to New York for the very first time. That trip and that tournament forever influenced and changed my life in ways I couldn’t quite imagine back then, which ultimately led to me writing here at Nunes, having the chance to enjoy some experiences that I’ll always cherish and meeting people I otherwise never would have met. I couldn’t really be more grateful for how things have unfolded and in many ways, those things could all be traced back to the 2006 Big East Tournament. That’s the long and short of it, but stories are best told in detail.

So... here goes.

***

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Cincinnatti 73 - Syracuse 71, 6.2 seconds remaining in regulation.

Sean McDonough: And again good coaching by (Andy) Kennedy, he had his team prepared in that situation to give the foul. McNamara a three-point run..

Bill Raftery: OOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHH! ONIONS!!!

Sean McDonough: POINT THREE TO GO! GERRY MCNAMARA WANTING TO PLAY IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT AS A SENIOR HIT A THREE POINT RUNNER! Andy Kennedy wants them to make sure it was a three. It looked like it from our vantage point and with point three to go, Syracuse keeping its NCAA hopes alive on the runner by McNamara. They’ll go to make sure that Syracuse has the lead but barring a miracle, Syracuse will keep those hopes alive.

Jay Bilas: Just an incredible play by Gerry McNamara, guarded closely.

That was the call in the waning seconds of No. 9 seeded Syracuse’s first game of the 2006 Big East Tournament, underwritten by ESPN’s Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas, three voices surrounding the annals of my childhood through the months of November to March. My winter months as a kid in Central New York were routinely spent inhaling as much college basketball in as inhumanly possible (Hey, Syracuse winters are tough. Leave me alone).

But that specific call was one that I wouldn’t hear for many years later because I happened to be sitting just rows behind the stanchion where McNamara hit that shot.

As it turns out, I was given the world’s greatest mother who knew very well how much Syracuse basketball meant to me. She took me to countless Syracuse games over the years and sent me to Syracuse basketball camp nearly every summer. Her father (my grandfather, of course) worked at Carrier in Syracuse back in its heyday, so he would routinely get tickets to Syracuse games and bring my mom. My grandfather’s brothers and sisters would also routinely head down to Madison Square Garden for the annual Big East Tournament and tell stories of how much fun they had. It was an experience my mom wanted us to share together, so in 2006 we ventured down to Manhattan to attend.

On the first day of the tournament we walked into Madison Square Garden early to get to our seats, see warmups and take pictures. I couldn’t really believe how close we were to the court. We were sitting behind the backboard which wasn’t great for unobstructed viewing purposes but was great for everything else. We ended up sitting near the McNamaras which was cool in and of itself.

Even as a callow, young kid you’re aware of the venue that you’re in. After all, it’s ‘the world’s most famous arena.’ The basketball mecca. I’d been to games in the Carrier Dome in front of some big crowds, but everything just pales in comparison to MSG. I was in awe.

But my mom was not, or at least if she was she certainly didn’t appear to be. She walked to the sidelines and down on the court as if she had a media credential and took pictures while I sat in my seat behind the stanchion trying not to cause trouble. A couple of those pictures are, hey, pictured below.

***

I remember thinking the game was over when Cincinnati’s Devan Downey stole Syracuse’s inbounds pass up one with less than ten seconds to go in the game. Assuredly, Downey would go to the line and knock down two to put the lead to three. I could envision Syracuse hoisting a deep three that would go awry and the Orange would be NIT bound. Syracuse came into that game 19-11 overall with many among the college basketball cognoscenti under the impression that the first game was a play-out game in terms of getting an at-large berth.

So as Downey went to the line I put my hood up over my head and pulled the drawstrings, slouched as far down as I could go in my chair and prepared for the worst. I watched the remaining ticks of the game unfold on the scoreboard overhead.

We had this! I remember saying to myself as Downey made the first free throw. Syracuse gave up 14 point second half lead and looked destined for the NIT.

But instead of making both, Downey missed the second and Syracuse corralled the rebound. Cincy had a foul to give and of course, fouled. There was life. Hope dies last and I was at least willing to entertain that sliver of hope no matter how small.

So now with 6.2 seconds remaining and Syracuse having possession, Gerry McNamara receives the inbounds pass from the sideline, dribbles left four times and on the fifth he deftly does a behind the back move to his right hand, takes one more dribble and does some shit you’ve never seen before in your life. The guy split two defenders 35 feet from the basket, takes one step right, another left and throws up a three-point floater over Cincy’s center and buries it with 0.3 seconds remaining.

Game. Blouses.

You couldn’t even write a better script. Did that really just happen?

It did. I was so excited I rocketed from my seat. On that day I might as well have fulfilled all of my basketball dreams of having a 48 inch vertical leap and dunked on somebody. At least that’s how it felt to me in that moment. I jumped up and down until I couldn’t anymore and until my mom’s foot went numb. She kept nudging me trying to tell me that I was landing on her foot each time I landed, but eventually she realized it was a lost cause as I was lost in the moment. It’s a miracle Syracuse got out of there with a win and a miracle my mom and I got out of there without a broken toe or sprained ankle. She lived to tell the tale and also laughingly gave me an earful about it afterwards.

The final score as seen from our seats.

After the Cincy game, Jim Boeheim had some choice words for the media regarding Syracuse’s BSD of a player in Gerry McNamara. What better time put the media on blast for suggesting McNamara was an overrated player than after hitting a game-winner on the world’s biggest stage in the media capital of the world?

“I have to laugh a little bit when our own paper is calling him, and our own student newspaper is calling him overrated. And they actually listened to a couple assistant coaches who I guarantee you will never be head coaches if they think Gerry McNamara is overrated, of course our paper won’t print that anyway because that’s you know, somebody said it. Without Gerry McNamara we wouldn’t have won 10 f*cking games this year. Okay? Not 10. And everybody is talking to me and writing about Gerry McNamara being overrated? It’s the most bullshit thing I’ve seen in 30 years.”

Boom.

We got back to our hotel and Boeheim’s comments were all over ESPN and they reverberated throughout midtown Manhattan. It had really only just begun.

***

Thursday, March 9, 2006

The next day Syracuse earned a date with No. 1 ranked Connecticut in the quarterfinals and everyone was thinking the same thing. It was nice to beat Cincinnati but there’s no way in hell Syracuse is taking down UConn. Connecticut had only lost two games all season. Rudy Gay? Marcus Williams? Hilton Armstrong? Josh Boone? There’s just no way.

Syracuse Orange v Connecticut Huskies Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Orange lost by eight to Connecticut at home earlier in the year despite 28 points from Demetris Nichols and later got smacked by 23 to the Huskies on the road. There’s not a chance. Hopefully other bubble teams would fall and somehow Syracuse could squeak into the tournament, right?

Wrong.

Syracuse pounced on UConn early, scoring the game’s first 10 points. Connecticut made a run and fought back, but Syracuse went back up 10 before the under eight minute media timeout in the first half.

Okay, so maybe we do have a chance in this thing.

In the second half UConn edged closer. It was neck and neck and eventually Connecticut took the lead late in the game on a Rashad Anderson triple. So at that point you’re thinking the tides have turned and UConn is going to take this thing over.

But McNamara had other ideas. With 11.2 seconds remaining and trailing by three, Syracuse had one last play...

Sean McDonough: Nichols inbounds to Devendorf, and now McNamara ten seconds to go... McNamara a. DEEP. THREE!

Bill Raftery: OHHHH Onions!

Sean McDonough: Five and half, time for Connecticut. Williams, three seconds to go, for the win, NO! And we go to overtime. Gerry McNamara for the second day in a row, from almost the same spot hits one deeper than yesterday’s buzzer beater and extends this game for at least five more minutes.

Bill Raftery: Wow! McNamara’s band!

Gerry had gotten the ball from Devendorf just before the timeline and quickly took two dribbles up the court with his right hand. He then hits Rashad Anderson with consecutive inside out dribbles, creating just enough space on the second, takes one more dribble and buries a three point bomb. He pulled up from beyond NBA range to send game into overtime. Clockwork.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Partly because the unthinkable happened but mostly because my vision was blurry. My eyes were watered down as if Bill Raftery himself came over and shoved those proverbial onions right into my retinas.

The Orange continued to fight and pulled off a victory in overtime. Improbable. Syracuse was likely headed to the NCAA Tournament.

***

Friday, March 10, 2006

The next night it was Georgetown and you couldn’t help but wonder if this thing was just meant to be. Once again, Syracuse would be pegged as the underdog but this time to its long time, ever-so-resented rival. Syracuse versus UConn was the rivalry of my vintage, but Syracuse versus Georgetown had history.

But any thoughts of what was meant to be were eradicated by halftime. With McNamara’s nagging groin injury — which unbeknownst to us at the time was actually much worse than originally preconceived — keeping him benched and Syracuse trailing by 15, the final 20 minutes of play would just be a formality. It was a good run and Syracuse probably did enough at that point to play itself into the tournament.

But McNamara wasn’t going out like that.

Gerry started the second half and the Orange slowly but surely clawed its way back from behind. Gerry went three-for-four from three in about a two minute stretch midway through the second half and had Syracuse within four.

With 48 seconds left and Syracuse still trailing by four, McNamara hit another three to get within striking distance. On the ensuing possession Syracuse forced a steal and Gerry freaking McNamara — who had just made game winning and game tying threes on back-to-back nights before hitting another huge shot the previous possession — had the presence of mind to pass the ball ahead to Eric Devendorf who laid the ball up for two, authoring Syracuse’s first lead of the entire game.

I always thought that was such an incredible play and an under-told point. McNamara had just made two unfathomable plays against Cincy and UConn and another huge shot against GTown, but instead of feeling the need to be the guy to make the final shot, he defers if only for a second and passes the ball to a freshman to finish the deal. Other guys might chase the glory a bit, fly too close to the sun and get burned. But Gerry remained himself. He was one cool customer and ended up with a win. That play always spoke volumes to me.

Syracuse Orange v Georgetown Hoyas Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

***

Saturday, March 11, 2006

No team had ever won four games in four days to win the Big East Tournament but the way things were going for Syracuse you could sense that it was going to be the first. The final game ended up being the most anticlimactic, but given how the previous three games had unfolded I’m not sure one could create anything more theatric no matter how close in proximity broadway was. Josh Wright ended up making four-of-four free throws in the final 13 seconds which gave Syracuse a 65-61 win. Syracuse ended up winning four games in four days by a total of eight points. Overrated?

Syracuse Orange v Pittsburgh Panthers Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

***

Ever since that tournament New York was just magical to me. I was gobsmacked during that run and continue to be today. The Big East Tournament became an annual tradition for five years for my mom and I and with each visit to New York the more I could envision myself living there. I longed to have a career in Manhattan and was willing to pay the price to make that dream come to fruition.

New York to me was the creme de la creme. It was a symbol of excellence — if I could hold my own there I could do anything. Frank Sinatra said it more eloquently, but I yearned to be surrounded by greats, to learn and be mentored by those greats and to become something better than I otherwise would have been. New York still symbolizes a lot of those things to me today. Having actualized that dream, now I guess it’s a matter of satisfaction. I couldn’t really imagine being happier or more fulfilled with how things have played out in my life to this point. TNIAAM is a huge part of that.

Which leads us to today. I’ll be covering the ACC Tournament every night this week in Brooklyn for us here at Nunes and it truly is a full circle moment for me despite being a conference removed and a borough away.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Almost 12 years to date I’m still that same Syracuse kid clad in orange with my figurative finger pointer, hoping that Syracuse will win. The only difference now is that my shirts are a little nicer, my hygiene is more of a focus and I ask Jim Boeheim and the players questions after games.

It’s been almost three years since I started writing here at TNIAAM and I couldn’t be more grateful to Sean for giving me the chance to write and for John continuing the strong lineage we have here. This year has undoubtedly been the most fulfilling as I’ve covered the UConn, Georgetown, Eastern Michigan and Duke games (more on that to come at season’s end) and I get excited about the idea of bringing the younger guys here along. We have an awesome staff on hand and you guys are tremendous as well. Nothing is more fulfilling when I see old friends back home or meet new people and they tell me that they read what I write. You guys actually read this stuff? What the hell is the matter with you? I guess you never really know who is watching, or in this case reading your work.

I’m really still just as in awe of this whole thing now as I was then, a fan masquerading as a member of the media with a credential, somehow upgrading my seats in the process without having to pay to get in the building. Who let this 14-year-old kid slip through the cracks and get a media pass?

Syracuse still means absolutely everything to me.

As it was, as it is and as it will forever be.