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Syracuse zone clamps down on Marquette to reach Final Four

Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams celebrates after cutting down

Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams celebrates after cutting down the net following their 55-39 win over Marquette in the East Regional final. (March 30, 2013) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON -- Location, location, location. Syracuse can tell you that the old saying about the key to real estate holds true for zone defenses and for turning your whole season around.

Exactly three weeks earlier in the same arena, the Orange hit bottom with an unsightly loss to Georgetown. It was especially embarrassing that the losing side scored only 39 points. So the team regrouped and put itself in a different sphere. Back again Saturday at Verizon Center, playing Marquette in the Elite Eight, Syracuse used its infuriating 2-3 zone and scored a huge win, scoring 55 and allowing -- you guessed it -- 39.

With that, Syracuse (30-9) reached the real prime location in college basketball, the Final Four. The team will be in Atlanta next weekend to play in the ultimate neighborhood, for the fourth time in Jim Boeheim's coaching career (1987, '96, 2003).

"We go every 10 years," he said.

The 2-3 zone worked as precisely as a finely tuned Swiss watch, and as predictably. Even though Marquette (26-9) has faced it before in Big East games, it couldn't do anything against it, shooting only 22.6 percent and committing 14 turnovers. It is all a matter of defending territory, and keeping opponents and the ball from moving freely.

"They have great athletes, they're long, athletic, they cover ground really good," said Vander Blue, the Marquette guard who had starred in last-second wins over Davidson and Butler, but missed on 12 of his 15 shots Saturday.

Funny thing: Boeheim and his staff could have used one of those Swiss watches the day after that Georgetown debacle. "The clocks went [forward] and the coaches didn't realize it," said Michael Carter-Williams, who was named most outstanding player in this East Regional after he had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists before a lively crowd that included President Obama.

At practice three weeks ago, the players were there by themselves so they started practicing on their own. "I think it was the seniors and myself," Carter-Williams said when he was asked who organized it. "We were just going to go straight to two [layup] lines, then we were like, 'No, let's do our guard groups, do the things we normally do, and go and compete and have a good practice.' "

They see that as a turning point. Boeheim doesn't necessarily agree. He pointed out that the Orange got off to a horrible start against Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament until James Southerland began making three-point shots. In any case, Syracuse has been solid for three weeks.

Southerland was strong again Saturday. He scored a game-high 16 points, the most important of which came with 11:25 left, when he took a feed from Carter-Williams on a fast break, made the basket, drew a foul and made the free throw for a commanding 35-25 lead. Boeheim also cited forward C.J. Fair (13 points) for having made big shots when the game could have gone either way.

Bottom line, to borrow a phrase, Syracuse is in a much better place than it was three weeks ago. "When we played Georgetown here, none of us were on the same page. As you see, we only scored 39 points," Southerland said in the din on the court afterward. "We did a good job of recovering from our losses and not sulking, because when you sulk, nothing goes right. We did a good job of talking to each other, communicating."

Now they are heading to higher ground in Atlanta. And Boeheim, an obliging husband and dad, got a reprieve from the vacation location that he had promised. "At least," he said, being the antithesis of a Super Bowl MVP, "I don't have to get up at 7 a.m. and go to Disney World."

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