CHICAGO — Malachi Richardson smiled as he ran upcourt while making circles around his eyes with his hands. Houston was right there in front of him. From the bubble all the way to the Final Four.
With Richardson scoring 21 of his 23 points after halftime, Syracuse came back from a 16-point deficit and extended its improbable run with a 68-62 win over No. 1 seed Virginia on Sunday night in the Midwest Regional final.
The Orange was among the last teams to get into the NCAA Tournament after a rough closing stretch, but it slipped in as a No. 10 seed before storming to its first Final Four since 2013 and sixth overall. It comes at the end of a challenging season for coach Jim Boeheim, who was suspended for nine games as the result of an NCAA investigation.
“It was a whole team effort and these guys really deserve it,” Boeheim said. “We beat a great basketball team. I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years as coach of a basketball team as I am of this team tonight.”
Syracuse (23-13), which fell behind 37-21 in the opening seconds of the second half, became the first No. 10 seed to make it to the Final Four and the fourth double-digit seed to accomplish the feat. It’s the lowest-seeded team to reach the national semifinals since No. 11 VCU in 2011.
Michael Gbinije and freshman Tyler Lydon each scored 11 points for the Orange. Tyler Roberson finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. “We had a lot of doubters,” Lydon said. “A lot of people who believed we shouldn’t even be in this tournament. I’m sure there are still a lot of people who think that. But we know what we can do as a team, and that’s all that matters.”
London Perrantes scored 15 of his 18 points in the first half for Virginia (29-8). Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC Player of the Year, had 12 points and shot only 2-for-14 in the final game of his Cavaliers career.
“It was in our grasp, but credit goes to Syracuse for some of the plays they made,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I think some of our points off turnovers probably cost us. We didn’t convert on some things, had some errors, but played well enough in stretches.”
Trailing 54-39 with 9:32 left, Syracuse put together a 25-4 run in the next 6:05, including 15 in a row. Richardson led the way, often taking the ball right at Brogdon. His driving layup put Syracuse ahead 59-58 with 5:47 left, its first lead since early in the first half.
After Perrantes missed a three, Richardson connected from deep for a 62-58 lead and jogged upcourt with a huge grin. “I just had to pick it up,” he said. “I wanted to help my teammates out as best I could.”
The confident freshman add ed another layup for his seventh straight point before Anthony Gill stopped Virginia’s drought with a basket inside. Virginia had a chance to tie in the final seconds after Gbinije went 1-for-2 at the line, but Devon Hall missed a three-pointer and Syracuse sealed it with free throws.
“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 shot 35.7 percent in the second half, seemingly worn down by the Orange’s tenacious 2-3 zone and full-court pressure.
“I think they were able to sink in a little bit and not let us get the ball in the middle as much because I don’t think we were being as aggressive outside of the zone as we should have been,” Brogdon said. “But yeah, I mean, you’ve got to give credit to them — they made plays.”