BUFFALO - The pose looked familiar. There Wesley Johnson stood, with his right arm still high in the air and his shooting hand pronated forward in textbook form. The noise was coming down from the rafters of HSBC Arena as Syracuse ran its lead over Gonzaga to 13 points on Johnson's third three-pointer of the first half.
Soaking in the moment, Johnson looked very Jordanesque, holding the same pose the great Chicago Bulls star did when he hit the winning basket for his sixth NBA title. This might not have been quite that momentous, but Johnson let the vast legions of Orange-clad fans know their hero was all the way back from the shooting-hand injury that threatened to undermine Syracuse's season. He totaled a career-high 31 points and soared to grab 14 rebounds.
First question in the press room after the top-seeded Orange (30-4) dispatched a fine Gonzaga team, 87-65, in an NCAA Tournament second-round game Sunday was: "Wes, now the number one question is about whether the hand is all right."
Smiling hugely, the Big East player of the year said, "I think it's fine now."
Syracuse post man Arinze Onuaku missed his second straight game with a right quadriceps injury that might prevent him from playing in the West Regional starting Thursday in Salt Lake City, and coach Jim Boeheim said, "When we don't have Arinze, we're a different team. He controls that paint area."
True, the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (27-7) were successful getting behind Boeheim's 2-3 zone to attack the rim early with athletic forward Elias Harris (24 points and eight rebounds) and 7-1 center Robert Sacre (17 points and eight rebounds). But Johnson was himself again. He was back to being the player who dominated defending national champion North Carolina in an early-season game at Madison Square Garden.
Johnson's production dipped dramatically at midseason after he suffered a badly bruised shooting hand. "If he hadn't had this injury, he would be up at an even higher level now than he is," Boeheim said. "I still don't think he's as strong as he was."
When Johnson is shooting the way he did against Gonzaga - 11-for-16 from the field, 4-for-6 from three-point range - it has an electrifying effect.
Johnson came out intent on scoring as Syracuse fought from behind to take a 22-21 lead. With 8:58 left in the first half, Rick Jackson, who moved from power forward to the low post in Onuaku's absence, went to the bench with his third foul.
The time looked ripe for the Zags to exploit the middle with Harris and Sacre. What happened instead was that Syracuse went on a 25-11 run for a 47-32 halftime lead, making eight of 10 shots in that stretch. Orange guards Brandon Triche (13 points) and Andy Rautins (24 points, 5-for-9 on threes) got going, too.
But the defining moment was the three by Johnson. After his big basket, Gonzaga guard Steven Gray threw a pass to an empty space, watched it go out of bounds and just shook his head in bewilderment.
Gonzaga's comeback thoughts were laid to rest when Rautins buried three three-pointers and had all but one Syracuse point in the 13-2 run that opened the second half. Ultimately, the Orange led by as much as 32 points, thanks to 54.7 percent shooting and a 12-for-25 mark from three-point range.
"I'm telling you, if they shoot the basketball like that, I don't see anybody beating them," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I don't think it's realistic to think they can continue to shoot the ball like that, but they were every bit as dialed in as that Carolina club we played last year, every bit as impressive."
Xavier 71, Pittsburgh 68
Jordan Crawford scored 27 points, including a breakaway dunk with just over two minutes left, as sixth-seeded Xavier held off third-seeded Pitt. Xavier (26-8) will play second-seeded Kansas State in a West Regional semifinal in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Hempstead's Terrell Holloway added 13 points, including a pair of late free throws to seal the win.
Ashton Gibbs, whose 19 points led Pitt (25-9), missed a potential tying three-pointer with four-tenths of a second left.- AP