For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: “Too many missed layups.”
I suppose it’s a tribute to how well the team came together without Fab that I am severely disappointed in tonight’s outcome. There is no shame to losing to Ohio State, of course, even had the team been at full strength. And this season will go down as one of the best ever for the Syracuse program. But right now I am just bitter. The game, and the trip to New Orleans, was there for the taking. And Syracuse — uncharacteristically — did not step up and grab it.
It would be one thing if SU had played at, or even near, near their best. But nobody watching this game could say that they had their ‘A’ game going. Sure, OSU is a good defensive team, but SU had a bunch of essentially unforced turnovers, including two in a row by Kris Joseph around the four-minute mark of the 2nd half. SU also missed far more than their share of layups and close-in shots. Some of it was the guys driving the lane trying (and failing) to draw fouls, but some of it was just lack of concentration or maybe just plain bad luck.
But to me what stands out the most is not the various misplays. Instead, it is the questionable decision-making on offense during the latter stages of the first half. With Sullinger out with foul trouble and OSU having to go deeper into their bench than they like, Syracuse had a golden opportunity to “get some separation” and build up a bit of a lead. The zone was highly effective while Sullinger was out. SU held OSU to just eight points over the final ten minutes of the half. But SU only managed 11 points over that same stretch of time, and the reason wasn’t so much OSU’s defense as a suddenly bad offense. SU stopped driving the ball into the lane, which they had been doing pretty successfully for the first ten minutes, and guys just started taking jump shots. Syracuse took (by my count) eight jump shots over the last ten minutes of the first half, and missed all eight. They only scored on dunks and free throws in that span. I think this failure to take full advantage of Sullinger’s absence was the most frustrating aspect of the game for me as a fan. Bad individual plays and missed shots will happen, but there is no reason to take eight jump shots when you have been successfully driving the lane all game and your opponent’s best interior player is on the bench.
Here’s the thing, though. Even with all the mistakes and the ill-timed offensive drought, there were so many plays that were an inch or two away from going Syracuse’s way, any one of which would have changed the complexion of the game. The terrible charge call on Triche that earned Boeheim a technical (on replays, the defender was clearly in the restricted circle and still moving when contact was made) took two points, and a potential third point on the free throw, off the board for SU, and gave OSU an extra point on the successful technical foul shot. The Triche three-point attempt with SU down by 1 midway through the second half that just rimmed out. Several near-steals and loose balls that SU just barely missed turning into breakaways. And of course the requisite “desperation contested three-pointer with the shot clock expiring” that all opponents somehow seem to make against SU at least once a game. Even playing less than their best, Syracuse still had a legitimate chance to pull this one out late in the game.
But here credit goes to Ohio State. The Buckeyes made a bunch of key plays down the stretch. They didn’t make a ton of baskets (though Lenzelle Smith did have a soul-crushing jumper with the shot clock running down) but they powered their way to the foul line over and over and over. And made their damn free throws. Ohio State shot 16-18 from the line in the last five minutes of the game. Unreal.
So this is how the 2011-12 season ends. A season chock full of off-court drama kind of just fizzled out on the court with a good, but not great, performance from the team. It’s remarkable that they nearly made the Final Four despite the “Fabsence”. At the same time it’s disappointing because if they’d played a little bit better they probably would have won, even without Fab. But at the same time it was a historically successful season. It’s weird, I’m bouncing between disgust that they lost and amazement that they made it as far as they did.
You know what it is? I can’t decide if they overachieved or underachieved. I mean, obviously they overachieved in the regular season — nobody goes 30-1, no matter how good you are. But I’m talking about their performance in the NCAAs. On the one hand, they got within a few points of the Final Four, without their starting center and defensive anchor. (And don’t forget, OSU was favored by the oddsmakers in this game too.) On the other hand, they clearly did not play at the top of their game Saturday, which suggests that their talent level, even without Fab, was such that they ought to have advanced to New Orleans.
I don’t know what to think. I guess there will be plenty of time to ponder this and other existential questions while rooting fervently for Ohio State to get utterly demolished by UNC or Kansas. Because, fuck those guys. Seriously.