Ever since the Syracuse Orange used the full-court press to knock off Virginia in the 2016 Elite Eight — prompting a 21-2 run to come back from down-14 in the second half (you might’ve heard of it) — broadcasts prominently retell the tale whenever Jim Boeheim breaks out of his 2-3 zone.
While the Orange may never pull off a comeback of such magnitude against an opponent that talented again, Boeheim continues to sprinkle the press into games in various scenarios. He’s used it to spur stagnant offensive performances recently, to attempt late comebacks in similar fashion to the Virginia game, and on Wednesday he surprised his opponent by trying to extend a lead.
“We’ve been working on it in practice and we wanted to try it,” Boeheim said. “They’ve got a lot of guards, but we did a good job and they made two big mistakes. We got two turnovers and that’s a big difference in the game. But then they got a dunk. Press can help you and it can hurt you.”
Beyond that mantra, Boeheim didn’t reveal much about why the situation called for a press but it — to quote NBA champion Ty Lue — threw the Tigers for a loop.
Syracuse led 34-28, when Clemson forced a steal, then Marek Dolezaj stuck a hand in on Elijah Thomas to knock the ball out of his hands and off his leg out of bounds. Frank Howard hit a free throw on the ensuing possession and Oshae Brissett jumped into Thomas’ face on the in-bounds to initiate the press leading by nine.
Clemson immediately turned it over. Marcquise Reed heaved the ball across half-court, facing a 10-second violation, and watched it fly into the hands of someone his team: his coach. Brad Brownell stood with the ball by his side for several moments.
Dolezaj hit a three to extend Syracuse’s lead to double digits, and within seconds the Tigers turned it over again, part of a flurry of 17 turnovers that likely cost them the game alongside seven missed free throws. Elijah Hughes hit a three to cap a 6-0 run in less than one minute — both baskets assisted by Frank Howard.
Clemson broke the press on a series of three passes to get Thomas a dunk in transition and Boeheim waved his team back into the zone shortly after.
The sequence, about two out of the game’s 40 minutes, was short but played an important role in handing the Orange some comfort before Reed lit on fire late in the second half from the field — scoring on four of five possessions to pull the Tigers back within six.
Brownell admitted after: Boeheim got him.
“We did practice against it for two days,” he said. “It was down there by their bench and it was a free throw situation and I thought to be honest with you our guys just weren’t 100 percent alert. Our point guard was on the bench. Marcquise’s guy was open and Marcquise threw it over his head.”
He said coming in that he’d expect Syracuse to press if they got behind. Instead, they pressed and compounded his team’s deficit.
Mixing it in for only a few possessions, he said, was smart.
“Maybe it would’ve helped if they would’ve kept pressing,” Brownell said. “Because we finally got a little bit of momentum and got some open floor. They’re hard to play against.”
Instead, when Boeheim waved both arms frantically to get his team back in the half court on defense, Tyus Battle forced a steal and got fouled running into Clemson’s end.
The mix of looks defensively puzzled Clemson in a key second-half stretch and helped steal the Orange a key conference win in a year where they’ll need many to make up for a non-conference slate where Syracuse paid the price for starting slow.
Boeheim’s defensive scheme morphs beyond the basic 2-3 zone, with added intricacies, and the occasional press adds up to rank this group 12th in KenPom’s defensive rating (90.7 points per 100 possessions).