CHICAGO — Syracuse trailed No. 1 seed Virginia by 16 points early in the second half of Sunday’s Midwest Regional final and looked like they were about to get blown out. After shooting only 30 percent in the first half, the Orange gave up an Anthony Gill dunk on the first possession of the second half and Virginia had all of the momentum. A 16-point deficit against a slow-tempo team like Virginia can seem insurmountable.
Then freshman Malachi Richardson took over.
The McDonald’s All-American shook off an 0-for-5 first half to finish with 23 points as his personal 7-0 run gave Syracuse the final push they needed to shock the Cavaliers. Syracuse held Virginia to only four points the final 7:34 of the game as the No. 10 seed Orange advanced to the Final Four with a 68-62 win.
Richardson is a talented wing scorer who got off to a sluggish start on Sunday. After an early turnover in which he tried to take Anthony Gill one-on-one and stepped out of bounds instead of passing to an open Trevor Cooney, Richardson got chewed out during the ensuing television timeout by the Syracuse coaching staff and was benched. The poor first half continued after Richardson re-entered the lineup and couldn’t get going.
At halftime, Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim singled Richardson out in front of the entire locker room and let the freshman know that the Orange needed more from him to reach the Final Four.
“He does it in front of everyone,” Richardson said of Boeheim’s message to him with a laugh.
Richardson responded by knocking down tough 3-pointers, attacking the basket and making hustle plays that kept possessions alive.
“Coach Boeheim kind of got on me a little bit and I knew I had to pick it up for my teammates,” Richardson said. “We couldn’t go out how we were going out. We were already down and I just wanted to help out.”
Not only did Richardson have a big second half in the biggest game of the season, he also did so against Virginia senior Malcolm Brogdon, one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders. After burying a stepback 3-pointer to give the Orange a 62-58 lead with 4:40 left, Richardson screamed as the Syracuse faithful reached a deafening pitch. Suddenly, a 15-point Syracuse deficit with 9:33 left had been erased and Richardson was slamming the door with big play after big play.
“Mali likes the crowd, he likes the stage. He likes to play on a big stage,” Syracuse assistant Adrian Autry said. “You never worry about him too much. Sometimes he does need something like Coach did to him. ‘Hey, come on! Let’s go. We need you to wake up. Make simple plays, not hard plays,’ whatever it may be. And he got going.”
Richardson getting going wasn’t the only change from the first half for the Orange. After coming back to beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 by incorporating a full-court press, the Orange used it again to speed up Virginia’s tempo and force bad looks. The press forced Virginia into a lot of uncomfortable offensive possessions and it once again changed the course of the game.
For a program known for sticking almost exclusively with a 2-3 zone, Syracuse is probably playing in the Final Four next weekend because of its full-court press.
“We talked about it halftime that we were going to go to it at some point,” Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara said of the press. “Coach usually has a pretty good feel for when to use it. What it did is it got us aggressive in transition offensively and now we started getting some stuff to the rim. Once we started pushing their defense back, Mali hit a couple of difficult looks.”
After blowing the lead, Virginia still had a chance to tie, trailing 65-62, with the shot clock turned off, but Devon Hall missed a clean 3-point look from the left wing as Tyler Lydon (11 points, six rebounds) snared the defensive rebound and iced the game at the free-throw line.
Senior Michael Gbinije finished with 11 points and six assists while junior forward Tyler Roberson added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Orange.
London Perrantes buried five first-half 3-pointers to pace the Cavaliers’ offense with 18 points — with all of his points coming on the long ball. Brogdon struggled to generate offense as he went 2-for-14 from the field. Although he struggled from the floor, Brogdon managed to get to the free-throw line seven times (making all of them) and finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in his final college game.
Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey each added 10 points for Virginia, who finishes the season at 29-8.
Not many expected the Orange (23-13) to be in the NCAA tournament to begin with after losing in the opening round of the ACC tournament (as a No. 9 seed), but Syracuse has made the most of its opportunity in the Big Dance. The Orange’s zone defense has looked very good over the last two weeks, and the changeup to the full-court press has been effective in escalating things quickly for Syracuse.
For Syracuse to reach the Final Four a year after the program’s self-imposed postseason ban shows that they’re already way ahead of where they should be after the scholarship reductions and recruiting restrictions. Many shrugged when the Orange beat two double-digit seeds to reach the Elite Eight, but for Syracuse to eliminate a Virginia team that beat them 73-65 on January 24 shows how much they’ve improved over the last few months.
“It was a great comeback, one of the best I’ve coached in, any team I’ve had, in terms of you’re playing, I think, a great team,” Boeheim said. “Virginia has beaten us 15 points three straight times, and they were 15 points up today. They’re a hard team to come back against, and these guys just made some unbelievable plays. They deserved to win this game.”
When the game concluded, former Syracuse players like C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Rakeem Christmas took the floor to share in the celebration. The moment was special for Christmas, in particular, since he was a senior on last season’s team that was banned from playing in the postseason.
After clipping off his piece of the net, Orange senior guard Trevor Cooney jogged across the floor and gave a hug to Christmas. The former teammates weren’t able to play in the NCAA tournament together last season, but Cooney feels like Christmas and his inspired play last season helped the Orange reach the Final Four this season.
“Those guys all paved the way for us here. We learned so much from those guys. I learned a lot from [Rakeem] about how to be a leader and how to step up my senior year. Those things have paid off for us now.”