CHICAGO — Syracuse overcame a cold second-half stretch and used a full-court press to rally for a 63-60 win over No. 11 seed Gonzaga on Friday night in the Midwest Regional at the United Center.
Freshman big man Tyler Lydon came up with the game-sealing block on Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins when the Bulldogs trailed by one with 1.6 seconds remaining, and his ensuing free throws clinched the win for the No. 10 seed Orange. Michael Gbinije scored the go-ahead bucket with 21.9 seconds left to give Syracuse its first lead since the 10:30 left in the second half.
Lydon finished with four points, four rebounds and six blocks.
“There were a couple of chances that me and [DaJuan Coleman] could have stepped up and made some plays and block some shots,” Lydon said. “At the end of the game I just saw it unfold, and our guards got caught out, and I saw [Perkins] split in between them. So I knew I had to step up or stay back, and I had to make a quick decision, so I just decided to step up and try and make a play. ”
Syracuse (22-13) was led 20 points from Gbinije as their zone defense gave Gonzaga’s offense issues for much of the game. With the Orange trailing, 59-54, with just under three minutes left, head coach Jim Boeheim incorporated a full-court press that helped force turnovers and get the Orange back in the game.
“It’s just our practice. We go over the press almost every day in practice,” Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara said. “The more impressive thing was that we could make a sub, bring in Franklin [Howard], and we don’t miss a beat. He had his responsibilities. Everyone was in-tune and handled their responsibilities down the stretch.”
Gonzaga had 17 turnovers on the night, which led to 14 Syracuse points, including a huge steal by senior Trevor Cooney (15 points) to get a quick layup that got the Orange’s momentum rolling.
Malachi Richardson also added 10 points for Syracuse while big man Tyler Roberson added nine points and 12 rebounds, with nine of those rebounds coming on the offensive glass.
“I’m proud of this team,” Boeheim said. “They played their hearts out. We’ve been the underdog every game and they fight their way through it. We’ll be the underdog again on Sunday but we’ll be ready.”
Senior Kyle Wiltjer was clearly in a zone early, but the Gonzaga star didn’t have much help for the first 30 minutes of Friday night.
Wiltjer finished with 23 points on 9-for-17 shooting as his early 3-point shooting helped Gonzaga stay in the game. The senior’s help finally came down the stretch in the form of sophomore center Domantas Sabonis.
The 6-foot-11 Sabonis, who registered his 23rd double-double of the season, finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds as he got going in the second half after a slow start on the offensive end. Sabonis scored the final nine points for Gonzaga as their offense once again stalled the last part of the game.
“I think we stuck to the plan,” Sabonis said. “Shots fall; they don’t fall. On defense, we held them to 33 percent. I think we did a great job. We just didn’t play well the last minute and they won.”
Gonzaga (28-8) finishes their season having made at least the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. It looked like the Bulldogs might snap their NCAA tournament streak with the way they were playing late in the regular season, but the Bulldogs went on a run and won the WCC Tournament before picking up convincing NCAA tournament wins over Seton Hall and Utah.
This will be a different-looking Gonzaga team without Wiltjer next season — and it’s hard to say if Sabonis decides to go pro — but the Zags have two impact transfers in Nigel Williams-Goss and Jonathan Williams III coming in that should help contribute right away with returnees like Josh Perkins.
And who could have expected Syracuse to be in the Elite Eight one year after they self-imposed a postseason ban? While many didn’t expect this team to be selected into the at-large field to begin with, Syracuse certainly has earned their way to this point. Critics will argue that the Orange have beaten two double-digit seeds to make the Elite Eight, but the Orange have played very solid defense during the tournament and the Gonzaga comeback showed that they can finish off a good team in a tight game.
Syracuse moves on to face No. 1 seed Virginia on Sunday at the United Center. With Syracuse and Virginia both winning, it means that the entire right side of the bracket is filled with ACC teams. It also means we’ll see an ACC rematch in one of the national semifinals at the Final Four. The Orange played the Cavaliers earlier this season and lost, 73-65, on the road on Jan. 24.