WASHINGTON — Jim Boeheim calls this year’s Syracuse team his best defensive group ever. Hard to argue, based on the suffocating performances that put the Orange in the Final Four.
Using its trapping, shot-challenging 2-3 zone to perfect effect for 40 minutes, No. 4-seeded Syracuse shut down No. 3 Marquette 55-39 in the East Regional final Saturday to earn Boeheim his first trip to the national semis since a freshman named Carmelo Anthony helped win the 2003 NCAA title.
“It’s a great thing,” Boeheim joked. “We go once every 10 years.”
Fittingly, a matchup between schools from the soon-to-break-apart, rough-and-tumble Big East became quite a struggle on the offensive end. Syracuse (30-9) was led by senior forward James Southerland’s 16 points. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 guard who is out front in the zone, was named the regional’s top player after having 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists Saturday.
Marquette (26-9) hadn’t scored fewer than 47 points all season and put up 74 in a victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. But this time Marquette kept turning the ball over, with its shots blocked or just plain missing.
“They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try,” Marquette Coach Buzz Williams said. “It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.”
It was much like what happened Thursday in the regional semifinals, when Syracuse knocked off top-seeded Indiana by limiting the Hoosiers to a season-low output.
“I don’t think we’ve played as good defensively as these last two games,” senior guard Brandon Triche said. “We held some good teams down.”
Marquette made only 12 of 53 shots — 23 percent — and was 3 for 24 on 3-pointers. Vander Blue, who carried Marquette to the round of eight, was held to 14 points on 3-for-15 shooting. The Golden Eagles’ 39 points were a record low for a team in a regional final since the shot clock was introduced in 1986.
“They cover ground really good. You’ve got to get the ball in the middle, you’ve got to play inside out, you’ve got to get to the free-throw line and wear them down with the 3-pointer when you can,” Blue said. “They’re really good at what they do in that zone.”
In the national semifinals at Atlanta next week, Syracuse will face the winner of Sunday’s South Regional final between Florida and Michigan.
Last season, Syracuse fell a victory short of the Final Four, losing to Ohio State in the regional final.
“We wanted to get over the hump,” Southerland said. “That’s what I told the guys: We’ve still got two more to go.”
The Big East is transforming radically before next season. Syracuse is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Marquette is one of seven basketball-centric schools departing the conference to form a new league that is taking the Big East name with it.
But talk about a last hurrah.
Not only is Syracuse on its way to the Final Four, but the league also could have a second representative because Louisville is in the Midwest Regional final Sunday against Duke.
In this very same building, exactly three weeks ago, Syracuse wrapped up its final Big East regular-season schedule with a bad-as-can-be performance in a lopsided loss to Georgetown, scoring 39 points — the Orange’s smallest total in a half-century.
Thanking fans after Saturday’s victory, Boeheim said: “I’m sure some of you were here, three weeks ago today, when it didn’t turn out so good.”
That was Syracuse’s fourth loss in a span of five games, a stumbling way to head into tournament play. Since then, though, Boeheim’s team has won seven of eight games.
“When you bounce back like that, that says a lot about your kids, your team and your character,” Boeheim said. “This is a heck of a bounce back.”