No. 3 Syracuse arrived in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals as the outright league champion and the "now team" favored by many to win the NCAA Tournament. But Georgetown-Syracuse is to the Big East what an Original Six rivalry is to the NHL, and after two losses to the Orange this season, the Hoyas were primed for payback and knew just how to get it done.
The trick to beating the Orange is figuring out how to attack coach Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone, which is considered the paragon of college zones. Between the passing of post man Greg Monroe and the outside shooting and baseline drives of Chris Wright and Jason Clark, the Hoyas destroyed the zone and the Orange, 91-84, Thursdayat Madison Square Garden.
Despite the loss, Syracuse (28-4) figures to get a No. 1 NCAA seed, but the job of winning the tournament became a lot harder when senior post man Arinze Onuaku went down with a right knee injury with 5:07 to play and was helped off the court. Boeheim called it a "sprain" and said Onuaku will undergo an MRI exam Fridayto determine the severity of the injury.
Even without Onuaku, Georgetown coach John Thompson III said it's an "understatement" to say Syracuse still is dangerous. "They're one of the best teams in the country," Thompson said.
So, it turns out, is No. 22 Georgetown (22-9). Wright was brilliant in scoring 27 points and totaling six rebounds and six assists. Austin Freeman had 18 points and Clark 17 for the Hoyas, who shot 57.9 percent against the zone and had 13 steals that led to a lot of transition points.
But the key was Monroe, whom Boeheim described as "the best inside passer in college basketball." He had 15 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Although Syracuse took a 34-25 lead with a 23-11 run late in the first half, it didn't faze the Hoyas because Syracuse wasn't stopping them from getting backdoor cuts and baseline drives. Midway through its 54-point second half, Georgetown responded with a 19-2 run that included eight points by Wright to take control at 70-61. Five of the Hoyas' seven baskets in that stretch came in the paint.
"Giving me the ball in the paint was effective," Monroe said. "They submerged on me, and I kicked it out. There were certain plays where I could get my shot, but you attack the zone from anywhere you can."
Syracuse, which shot 54.2 percent and got 24 points from Wes Johnson, 19 from Scoop Jardine and 18 from Kris Joseph, cut the deficit to 74-72 less than a minute after watching Onuaku exit the game. But an 11-4 surge that included two three-point plays by Monroe restored an 85-76 cushion with just over a minute to play.
Now the Hoyas move to a semifinal matchup with Marquette (22-10) at 7 o'clock Friday night. Some say the conference tournament no longer means much because half the Big East likely will make the NCAA field, but Monroe disagreed.
"Despite what people say, there's games to be won," Monroe said. "We're here to win."
As for Syracuse, the Orange simply are hoping Onuaku's injury isn't as serious as they fear. "I prayed on the court that it's something he can get over," Joseph said. "Arinze is like a big brother. We're going to keep him in our prayers."