Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim watches the action during Saturday’s NCAA Final Four game against Michigan in Atlanta.
ATLANTA — Jim Boeheim sat on a stool most of the night, hand propped against his chin, looking more like a man proctoring a math exam than one coaching a basketball game.
Not much a coach can do when his best shooters can’t find the basket.
The Syracuse coach had only two points less than his best player, Michael Carter-Williams, and only five fewer than his most dangerous shooter, James Southerland.
Two players who accounted for 25 points a game this season combined for three measly buckets Saturday night. That was easily the difference in a 61-56 semifinal loss to Michigan.
“Our offense was not good in the first half or the second half,” Boeheim said. “Second half, we got our defense going a lot better, and got back in the game in spite of our offense.”
But that offense wasn’t much to talk about in either half, especially as far as two of the most important cogs were concerned.
So nice a job did Michigan do on Southerland that, trailing by three with 17.9 seconds to go, Boeheim couldn’t draw up a play to get the ball to him. Instead, Trevor Cooney drove hard to the basket. He missed and Syracuse never got a chance at the tying shot.
“We were trying to get James, they switched it and Trevor had no choice,” Boeheim said. “He did the best he could in that situation.”
As for Carter-Williams, well, he wasn’t even an option by that point. He fouled out with 1:14 left, giving a big tug on his jersey while walking to the bench after a 1-for-6 night that included two assists and five turnovers.
“You’d love to have him out there,” Boeheim said. “You want to go to the basket in that situation, and make a play going there, but we’re not making a lot of shots, so we’re not going to try to throw something up.”
Another Syracuse scorer, C.J. Fair, carried almost the entire load with 22 points, but with few other options, and without balls going in the basket, Syracuse wasn’t able to set up its suffocating 2-3 zone as efficiently and frequently as it wanted.
That left Boeheim with very little to do other than watch the ugliness unfold.
Carter-Williams, a projected first-round NBA draft pick in a few months, made his only basket on a layup late in the first half.
Southerland, who tied a program record with nine 3-pointers in a game against Arkansas earlier this year, finished 2 for 9 and 1 for 5 from long range. All five of his points came over the last 1:58, including a 3-pointer that pulled Syracuse within a point with 47 seconds left.
He seemed like the perfect man to go to on Syracuse’s last possession, but never saw the ball, as Cooney, a freshman, drove wildly to the hoop and missed.
Syracuse’s first trip to the Final Four since its 2003 championship led by Carmelo Anthony ended with a very un-Melo-like thud.
“It’s hard to see it.” Boeheim said. “I told them, they should feel bad, because they could have won this game, but what they’ve accomplished is, I think, incredible this year.”
Instead of taking part in the ultimate send-off for the Big East Conference, which is reconfiguring after this season, the Orange goes home and it’s Michigan playing Louisville for the title Monday.
The Wolverines man-to-man defense much more damage to Syracuse’s offense than Syracuse’s zone did to theirs.
Syracuse (30-10) shot a respectable 41 percent, but Southerland and Carter-Williams only made 20 percent.
While most teams need defense to help produce offense, Syracuse is one of those rare teams that turns that equation on its head.
The Orange needs offense to produce defense. Without it, long rebounds turned into easy transition points for Michigan. While holding Trey Burke to seven points, Syracuse never found an answer for the Wolverines big man, Mitch McGary (12 points, 10 rebounds, six assists). Michigan made six 3-pointers in the first half. The Orange allowed 36 points over the first 20 minutes — only three fewer than they gave up to Marquette in the regional final — and fell behind by 11.
“We just became more active” in the second half, said Syracuse guard Brandon Triche, who mans the top of the Orange zone. “For me, I was kind of stagnant in the first half, and probably got three or four 3-pointers hit on my side. In the second half, I tried to make sure that didn’t happen.”
Things did, indeed, get better over the second 20 minutes, but it was too big a hole to climb out of.
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