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Dougherty: This wasn’t supposed to happen for Syracuse basketball, but then it did

first_imgLogan Reidsma | Senior Staff PhotographerBut you did. You did all of it. You were right there.The locker room Saturday, after one more SU comeback was muffled by the mega-talented Tar Heels, was quiet like that Jan. 5 night. Except this time there would be no impromptu meeting to kickstart a run. The run was finished and frozen in history.As the players, managers and coaches ambled throughout the room — exchanging glances through swelled eyes, embracing in long hugs, slowly packing up the season — a fitting slogan was stripped across the back wall.On top of a picture of Syracuse hoisting the Midwest regional trophy last Sunday read, “The Road Ends Here.”It was at once a celebration, but now a chilling reminder that reality had finally caught up to this year’s unwanted Cinderella team. On April 2. Imagine that.At the foot of the sign was a small pile of debris: three used tissues, the sports section of a day-old copy of USA Today, crumpled up notes on North Carolina, a few stray pens. Four months ago, when the season was angling downward with great speed, it could have ended like this. A bunch of misplaced pieces at the foot of college basketball glory. Stray items worth tossing into a trash bin and leaving behind.Then that all changed. In that 12:01 meeting in January. In St. Louis. In Chicago. In Houston. Impossibly.This wasn’t supposed to happen for Syracuse, but then it did. Don’t ever forget that.Jesse Dougherty is a Senior Staff Writer at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at jcdoug01@syr.edu or @dougherty_jesse. Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on April 3, 2016 at 8:50 pmcenter_img HOUSTON — Malachi Richardson needed to get his mind off basketball. If only for an hour, or a minute, or even a couple of seconds of peace and quiet in his head.He wasn’t talking to any of his teammates but inside he was screaming at himself. They were all screaming at themselves, and while the locker room was nearly silent it really wasn’t silent at all.Usually Richardson wouldn’t need this. Usually he could take a loss, crumple it up and toss it out of sight and mind. But not this time. Not this loss, even if there were three months of basketball ahead.Syracuse’s frustration, all the way back on Jan. 5, was rooted in the following: An overtime loss to Clemson, some 40 minutes earlier, after leading by three on the Tigers’ final possession of regulation. An 0-3 start to Atlantic Coast Conference play. A season that once seemed so promising, when the Orange boarded a flight back from Atlantis undefeated at 6-0, was now slipping into the twilight zone.So Richardson kept his head down while tidying up his locker. He changed out of his uniform and handed his sneakers to SU’s equipment manager. He slipped headphones over his head and started toward the exit.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThen a voice stopped him short of the door. He doesn’t remember who, but guesses that it was one of the assistant coaches. He does, though, remember exactly what the voice said.“No one is going home,” and Richardson looked at the time on his iPhone, creeping toward midnight. “We’re going to see Coach.”What happened next will be passed down through Syracuse basketball history. The details will likely change along the way, like an old fable with no known author. Richardson said each player was singled out and told what to improve upon. SU walk-on Christian White said the meeting was short and to the point. Doyin Akintobi-Adeyeye, another walk-on, said the man pacing at the front of Syracuse’s film room was energetic well into that Wednesday morning.There’s already different versions, disconnect that could be attributed to tired memories or an effort to keep a private moment just that. But there are two things that cannot be disputed. The first is that at 12:01 a.m., at the exact moment he was allowed to see his team again after a nine-game suspension, Jim Boeheim called a meeting at the Carmelo K. Anthony Center. The second is that it righted the Orange’s stumbling season and, eventually, set up an unforgettable Final Four run.“It really did feel like the turning point,” said SU forward Tyler Lydon, a day after his block sealed a Sweet 16 win over Gonzaga. “We just knew that Coach was back and we had to pick things up or the season could get lost. That was the mindset right there.”It seems fitting that this season — once defined by inconsistency but now etched in the record books as a true test of the impossible — was turned around in such a moment. The Hollywood version would have Boeheim walking out of a dark corner, waiting for the room to settle into an ear-piercing silence, then delivering a speech that would even make the hairs on the back of John Thompson Jr.s’ neck stand up. There’s no saying that happened, but there’s also no saying it didn’t. What we do know is Syracuse needed a wakeup call as the calendar turned, and the midnight return of its head coach was the first step in the unlikeliest Tournament run in program history.If you want to summarize that run after the Orange fell 83-66 to top-seeded North Carolina in NRG Stadium on Saturday night, it all comes back to this sweeping narrative:At no point was Syracuse supposed to get to the Final Four. Not anywhere close to it. But that’s exactly what happened. That’s exactly what you all watched, with two eyes on the court and your hearts in your throats. And now it’s not really about how Syracuse got here, but that it did — one game short of the national title game yet well past what we all imagined.“I told the players after the game that I’m more proud of this team than any team I’ve ever coached,” Boeheim said after the loss to the Tar Heels. “I’ve been pretty proud of our teams. This team battled through an awful lot of things.”Those “things,” the obstacles that make this climb into April equally incredible and inconceivable, started to stack up before the season even started. Last March the NCAA cracked down on a decade of violations, none of which involved any player on this team, and hung a cloud over the program. Scholarships and wins were taken away, Boeheim’s nine-game suspension was announced, Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban with recruiting, tickets sales and, if only slightly, this kind of Tournament run in mind.Logan Reidsma | Senior Staff PhotographerAnd in the shadow of the program’s past, the Orange was nearly as shaky on the court. Starting center Dajuan Coleman was coming off 22 months of rehab for two knee surgeries. Tyler Roberson had never been relied upon as a primary rebounder. Michael Gbinije had never been a full-time point guard. Boeheim was going to look to two freshmen for starter minutes, and a third would join his seven-man rotation in time.All things considered, an 0-4 start to conference play wasn’t all that surprising. Boeheim was watching from home. Every player on the court, save fifth-year senior Trevor Cooney, was either inexperienced or unfamiliar with their role. If the season was going to burn out right then and there, with a crippling loss to Clemson and the fleeting excitement of Boeheim’s return, it would have been fairly normal. Expected. OK.But then the wheels started turning, slowly at first and then in warp speed. SU answered the 0-4 start, which tied the worst start to conference play in Boeheim’s 40 years as head coach, with an 8-1 run that included a win at No. 20 Duke and at home over No. 25 Notre Dame. No team had ever made the Final Four after starting 0-4 in conference play until this one did.Whatever Boeheim said that night, it worked.“I just think we didn’t know when to quit, or even what quit means,” said Gbinije late Saturday night. “That’s what got us here. Just buying in and saying to each other, to the guy next to you, that we’re not going down.”When it came to Selection Sunday, Syracuse couldn’t help itself. It ended the year 1-5 and, after a second-round loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, was widely thought to be on the wrong side of the bubble. But the committee felt otherwise. Consider for a moment, like you may have already, that this Orange team was an NCAA Tournament afterthought, plugged in as a 10 seed in the Midwest region and left as bait for second-seeded Michigan State.What happened next will be retold on barstools for many years to come. Syracuse wins and Michigan State loses. That paves the Orange’s way through St. Louis and it upends 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State two days later. Then it’s on to Chicago, where Lydon’s all-time block of Josh Perkins’ floater seals a comeback win over Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Where SU trailed Virginia by 10 points with less than 16 minutes on the clock — the same Virginia team which had never, in 68 games, fumbled a double-digit halftime lead under Tony Bennett — and came back again. Where dreams turned into a dream season, one play at a time.“Something’s happening that you just can’t explain,” said SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who replaced Boeheim for those nine games, after Syracuse improbably beat the Cavaliers and became the fourth double-digit seed to ever reach the Final Four.“It’s hard to put into words. But it’s just, these guys are just doing it.”It wasn’t supposed to happen. Any of it, really. But it did for Syracuse, and it did for you.You weren’t supposed to watch another month of meaningful basketball. You weren’t supposed to sit in the same spot on your couch, or wear the same orange socks every game or not shave, just because you thought it may help in the smallest way. You weren’t supposed to drink in a second Final Four run in four seasons — both figuratively and quite literally — whether you were an SU student at Castle Court, at Chuck’s Cafe off South Crouse Ave. or sitting with your family, with generations of Syracuse happiness and heartbreak, in a sacred living room.last_img read more

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