Syracuse rides defense past Marquette, to Final Four

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Orange-clad Syracuse supporters had many occasions to stand and cheer throughout their team’s 55-39 victory over Marquette on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center. There were thunderous dunks, clutch 3-pointers and the post-game net-cutting ceremony complete with commemorative white Final Four shirts and black hats.

One particular ovation, though, was special. It was about midway through the first half. Trevor Cooney and Brandon Triche, the two guards at the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, harassed Marquette’s guards, forming an impenetrable wall.

Cooney and Triche’s lateral quickness allowed them to stay between the ball and the basket no matter how fast the Golden Eagles rotated the ball or who tried to dribble past them. As the shot clock ticked down and Cooney and Triche harassed Marquette like mosquitoes at a picnic, cheers from the Syracuse fans crescendoed, willing them on.

“We showed that defense wins games,” Triche said.

The Orange’s lockdown zone defense carried them to their first Final Four since 2003 and the fifth in their history. Syracuse will play the South region winner, either Michigan or Florida, in a national semifinal next Saturday in Atlanta.

The game was a delight for anyone who enjoys contested shots, long possessions and clogged passing lanes. Syracuse scored 19 points off the Golden Eagles’ 14 turnovers.

For those who savor offense, it was borderline unwatchable.

Marquette easily undermined its previous season low of 47 points in a game. The Golden Eagles shot 23 percent from the field, and the victors didn’t fare much better at 36 percent. The teams combined to shoot 31 of 103 (30 percent), enough bricks for a house.

“Our defense has been tremendous in this tournament, and our offense has been just enough,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Both teams struggled.”

Perhaps that was fitting for what could be Syracuse’s final game against a Big East opponent as a member of the conference.

The Orange are leaving for the ACC after this season. So often during college basketball’s postseason, conversation centers on how a team represents its league or how a conference collectively fares in the tournament. Such talk is awkward as it relates to the Syracuse this month, but the 2-3 zone defense synonymous with Boeheim made one last impression on the Big East, which is known for its physical, low-scoring style.

“I hope they win the national championship,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “We will miss not having them in our league.”

Forward James Southerland had 16 points to lead three Orange in double figures.

Golden Eagles guard Vander Blue opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, and that was about as good as it got for them. They scored only one field goal over a 12-minute, 23-second span of the first half, which allowed Syracuse to build a double-digit lead. Marquette cut its deficit to 4 early in the second half but never got closer. The Orange led comfortably throughout the second half.

“They beat us from start to finish,” Williams said. “We collectively tried everything we knew to try.”

Blue and forward Davante Gardner led Marquette with 14 points apiece.

Syracuse advances to the Final Four having won seven of eight since losing its regular-season finale against Georgetown in this building on March 9. That loss was the Orange’s fourth in five games, a nadir they have put behind them.

“We stayed positive, but, you know, you can’t say we didn’t lose confidence,” Triche said. “We were probably unsure of ourselves a little bit. One thing we did is we kept working hard, and the coaching staff really got on us. We won a few games there and got better as a team, and we knew we couldn’t do that without defense.”

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