Orange runs out of time playing catch-up after Michigan exploits vaunted 2-3 zone
ATLANTA -- During Syracuse’s first four games in the NCAA tournament, the Orange had held their opponents to just 15.4 percent from beyond the arc as teams attempted to exploit their heralded 2-3 zone by making deep shots.
Although Michigan didn’t quite excel from distance late in Saturday’s Final Four matchup in the Georgia Dome, the Wolverines caught fire from behind the line late in the first half, just long enough to build a lead that was never lost.
The Orange fell to Michigan 61-56, giving coach Jim Boeheim his first loss in four national semifinal games during his 37 years at the helm for the Orange.
Although his team struggled through much of the game to find any rhythm, Boeheim said that he felt as though the discrepancy from behind the arc was the key to the outcome.
“You know, they made eight 3s and we made three,” he said. “That’s the difference in the game when you look at it.”
After a scoreless first minute-and-a-half from both squads, junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. got the Wolverines on the board 1:39 into the game with his first of three 3-pointers on the evening.
But from there, Michigan couldn’t seem to hit from downtown.
They missed nine consecutive, continuing to dish it out as they couldn’t manage to drive into the lane or penetrate Syracuse’s zone defense with a pass down low.
Syracuse had excelled during the tournament at forcing its opponents to take an abundance of 3-pointers -- Montana, California, Indiana and Marquette averaged shooting more than 22 per game against the Orange.
The four teams combined for just 14 baskets from behind the arc.
As the Wolverines put up prayer after prayer -- some even launched near the center court logo -- Syracuse jumped out to an early 14-9 lead off of nine points from junior forward C.J. Fair in the first 7:16 of the game.
Fair was the only player on Syracuse’s roster who got into much of a rhythm all game, though. He finished with 22 points on 9-of-20 shooting from the floor, but until late in the game, he was Boeheim’s only player in double figures.
But once he reached nine points, he wouldn’t make a single bucket for the remainder of the first half. That was the stretch when Michigan began to catch fire.
“I knew we were going to have some mismatches, and I hit a couple of my shots early so I had some rhythm so coach wanted to keep giving me the ball,” Fair said. “Then I started missing some shots.
“I didn’t feel pressure. I knew if we wanted to be in this and stick around, I had to produce.”
Fair said midway through the first half, Syracuse’s zone defense, which had helped the Orange hold Michigan and grab an early lead, began to slack off as the Wolverines grabbed offensive rebounds. Michigan could then make quick passes outside to open shooters before the defense was able to reset.
Sophomore guard Trey Burke hit just one shot, a 3-pointer, in the first half, but a large amount of Michigan’s production came off the bench.
Freshman guard Caris LeVert hit two 3-pointers during a 15-3 Michigan run that allowed the Wolverines to take a lead they maintained for the rest of the game.
Fellow bench player and freshman guard Spike Albrecht hit two long-range jumpers as well a few minutes later, his only shots and points of the game.
Senior guard Brandon Triche took the bulk of the blame upon himself for Michigan’s six first half 3s. Triche said he should have been more aggressive and should have stepped out to meet Michigan’s shooters, even when they stepped back from beyond NBA 3-point range.
“Every time they hit a shot, it was because what we did, not what they did,” Triche said. “They were doing the same plays, but we didn’t get to the spots we needed to.
“When you’re active, it’s just a stupid shot. When you’re not active and they’ve got time to actually look at the basket and get their feet set, those guys have range.”
Michigan closed the half hitting five of the team’s last eight threes, holding a 36-25 lead.
In the second half, Triche said he felt like the Orange were able to execute their zone much more effectively.
The Wolverines managed to put up just eight 3-pointers and made just two of them. Michigan was just 33.3 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes, shooting 8-of-24, a more characteristic line from a Syracuse opponent during the tournament.
Fair came out of the gates hot to start the second half, just like he began the first. The junior scored 11 of his team’s first 20 points as he helped Syracuse chip away at the deficit.
With 7:54 left in regulation, after a jumper from Fair, Syracuse had cut the lead to just three points.
After the Wolverines pushed it up to as many as eight, Syracuse managed to come within just a single point, off a 3-pointer of their own, from senior forward James Southerland with just 41 seconds left in the game.
They would be the final points of the season for the Orange.
Syracuse’s fouls began to pile up late in the game as their leaders, Triche and junior guard Michael Carter-Williams, each made early exits after receiving their fifth fouls in the final 80 seconds of the game.
Triche hit double figures off a layup with just 50 seconds left to finish with 11 points in his final collegiate game. But Carter-Williams, who averaged 12.1 points per game this season, finished with just a single bucket.
Though the Wolverines were just 4-of-9 from the line late in the game, an echo of their second half shooting woes, Syracuse simply didn’t have enough firepower and time to crawl its way back.
“We got so close that we put the pressure on them,” Fair said. “If we had just one or two more minutes, I think we would have pulled it off.”