BOSTON - College basketball at its finest was on display Thursday night at TD Garden, the site of the Sweet 16 matchups between the Syracuse Orange and Wisconsin Badgers as well as the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cincinnati Bearcats.
Syracuse and Wisconsin opened the night with an absolute thriller, as the Bearcats refused to go away until the very end, but the Orange did just enough to escape with a 64-63 win to advance to the Elite Eight.
"This is one of the best games I've been involved with in a long time," said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. "I think the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn't beat us. They made 14 threes, and usually that's enough. But really proud of our players. Every time they came back and went ahead, we had an answer for it."
Wisconsin led 20-18 with 8:04 left in the first half, but Syracuse went on a 15-3 run spurred on by six points from C.J. Fair, who led all Orange scorers with 15 points, to take a 33-23 advantage with 2:30 to play before halftime. A pair of Josh Gasser free throws and a jumper from Jordan Taylor (17 points, six assists) made it 33-27 heading into halftime.
The second half featured a barrage of three-pointers from the Badgers, who finished the game with 14 treys (nine in the second half) to account for 42 of their 63 points. Syracuse led by as many as seven (48-41 at 12:42) in the closing half, but Wisconsin worked its way back into the game thanks in part to a string of seven consecutive threes, and the Badgers grabbed a three-point edge (59-56 at 7:05).
"I don't think anybody has ever made 14 threes against s and we beat them," said Boeheim. "The only game I can think of was when (Chris) Hill made ten threes against us in Michigan State in '03 when we beat them at their place by a point. He made ten, but I don't think anybody else on their team made one. But 14 threes, that's a lot of threes to overcome."
Alas, they did. Syracuse kept its cool during the Wisconsin barrage and had an answer for everything the Badgers threw at them down the stretch.
"Just stick to our principles defensively," said Kris Joseph when asked how his team maintained its composure during the run. "Our teams were going to make shots like coach said. Some of them were real tough shots that you can't really do much about, but you can't hang your head because there was still a lot of basketball to play. We had to go down and make plays on the offensive end and come down and try to stop them on defense."
"We were scoring too," said Scoop Jardine, who had 14 points. "Every time they scored, I think we scored right back. That's what you've got to do when a team is scoring on you. You've still got to go down and play offense and never get rattled, and I think we done a great job of getting in our sets and making shots. They was playing from behind, too, so we knew we had the lead and we had to stay within ourselves and continue to execute, and I think we done a great job because it's really hard not to -- it's easy to get rattled in a situation like that, but we had great senior leadership where we stayed within ourselves and we made baskets that we needed to make, not just me, everybody."
In the second game of the evening, Ohio State rode Jared Sullinger (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Deshaun Thomas (26 points) to a 81-66 victory over Cincinnati, setting up a date with Syracuse in the Elite Eight round on Saturday.
The Buckeyes controlled the flow of the first half and took a 37-25 lead into the break, only to fall asleep at the start of the second half and allowing the Bearcats to pull ahead by four points twice in the half. But the Buckeyes wouldn't go away that easily, and a 17-1 run helped Ohio State rebuild a double-digit lead and put Cincinnati away once and for all.
"We've got two types of basketball teams," Sullinger said. "We've got the cool guys and then the blue collar guys. I thought to start the second half we got into cool guy mode and we kind of let our guard down. Coach Matta basically told us before we started the second half that they was going to come at us with everything they had because Cincinnati is just the type of team that does not give up. I mean, we just came out and decided to be cool guys, and they came out and they stung us, and then we got ourselves back into another basketball game."
Ohio State and Syracuse tip off at 7:05 p.m. EDT on Saturday in the Elite Eight of the East Region at TD Garden, which will provide a difficult task for both teams.
"I know we're going to face a 2-3 zone," said Sullinger. "There's no hiding that. They're very long. They're very athletic. I mean, the can get up and down with the best of them. So it's going to be a game that we're going to have to try to control the tempo in, and also we're going to have to score and execute our offense even though they're playing 2-3 zone. We can't just sit back and let them punch us. We've got to throw the first punches. Not literally, but..."