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NCAA roundup: Defense carries Syracuse into the Final Four

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From page B3 | March 31, 2013 |

Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas (25) defends against a shot attempt by Marquette guard Vander Blue (13) as the Orange topped the Golden Eagles, 55-39, in Saturday's East Regional final. AP photo

WASHINGTON — Jim Boeheim calls this year’s Syracuse team his best defensive group ever. Hard to argue, based on the suffocating performances that put the Orange in the Final Four.

Using its trapping, shot-challenging 2-3 zone to perfect effect for 40 minutes, No. 4-seeded Syracuse shut down No. 3 Marquette, 55-39, in the East Regional final Saturday to earn Boeheim his first trip to the national semis since a freshman named Carmelo Anthony helped win the 2003 NCAA title.

“It’s a great thing,” Boeheim joked afterward. “We go once every 10 years.”

Fittingly, a matchup between schools from the soon-to-break-apart, rough-and-tumble Big East became quite a struggle on the offensive end. Syracuse (30-9) was led by senior forward James Southerland’s 16 points. Michael Carter-Williams, a 6-foot-6 guard who is out front in the zone, was named the regional’s top player after having 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists Saturday.

Marquette (26-9) hadn’t scored fewer than 47 points all season — and, indeed, put up 74 in a victory over Syracuse on Feb. 25. But this time, Marquette kept turning the ball over, seeing its shots blocked or just plain missing.

“They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.”

Much like what happened Thursday in the regional semifinals, when Syracuse knocked off top-seeded Indiana by limiting it to a season-low output, too.

“I don’t think we’ve played as good defensively as these last two games,” said Orange senior guard Brandon Triche. “We held some good teams down.”

All told, Marquette made only 12 of 53 shots — 23 percent — and was 3-for-24 on 3-pointers. Vander Blue, who carried Marquette to the round of eight, was held to 14 points on 3-for-15 shooting. The Golden Eagles’ 39 points were a record low for a team in an NCAA tournament regional final since the shot clock was introduced in 1986.

“They cover ground really good. You’ve got to get the ball in the middle, you’ve got to play inside out, you’ve got to get to the free-throw line and wear them down with the 3-pointer when you can,” Blue said. “They’re really good at what they do in that zone.”

In the national semifinals at Atlanta next week, Syracuse will face the winner of Sunday’s South Regional final between Florida and Michigan.

Last season, Syracuse fell a victory short of the Final Four, losing to Ohio State in the round of eight.

“We wanted to get over the hump,” Southerland said. “That’s what I told the guys: We’ve still got two more to go.”

Wichita State 70, Ohio State 66: At Los Angeles, Malcolm Armstead scored 14 points, Fred Van Vleet bounced in a big basket with one minute left, and ninth-seeded Wichita State earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1965 with a victory over Ohio State in the West Regional final.

Van Vleet scored 12 points as the Shockers (30-8) followed up last week’s win over top-ranked Gonzaga with a nail-biting victory over the second-seeded Buckeyes (29-8), whose 11-game winning streak ended one short of their second straight Final Four. Wichita State’s 20-point lead in the second half dwindled to three in the final minutes, but several Shockers stepped up with big plays to stop the surge, heeding coach Gregg Marshall’s halftime command to “play angry.”

All that anger turned into a joyous postgame party at midcourt, even though the Shockers realize they’ve got more work to do.

Wichita State is just the fifth team seeded ninth or higher to reach the Final Four since seeding began in 1979, but the second in three years following 11th-seeded VCU’s improbable run in 2011. The Shockers’ celebration was wild, if a bit disbelieving, in front of several thousand roaring fans.

“Last year we were watching all this on television,” said Cleanthony Early, who scored 12 points despite spraining his ankle in the second half. “Now I’m looking at a hat that says ‘Final Four Atlanta’ with my team on it. … It feels good, and it feels even better that I could experience it with these guys who had to struggle so hard to get here.”

Wichita State roared to a 20-point lead with 11 minutes to play after Ohio State played an awful first half, but LaQuinton Ross scored 15 of his 19 points after halftime, leading a ferocious rally that got the Buckeyes within three points in the final minutes.

Tekele Cotton hit a clutch 3-pointer for Wichita State with 2:20 left and grabbed a key offensive rebound moments later, allowing Van Vleet to score on a shot that bounced all over the rim before dropping. Ron Baker and Cotton hit last-minute free throws to secure the second Final Four trip in Wichita State’s history and a school-record 30th win.

“We’re happy, but I’m still shocked,” said Carl Hall, the glasses-wearing big man who scored eight points and led the Shockers’ strong defensive effort. “We’ve got a team full of fighters. I brought them all together near the end and said, ‘No matter what happens, I love y’all.’ We had to fight so hard. We’ve got each other’s backs, and it’s hard to beat a team that’s got five guys who work together like us.”

Deshaun Thomas scored 21 points after missing nine of his first 12 shots for Ohio State, which made just 24 percent of its first-half shots. Aaron Craft scored nine points on 2-for-12 shooting against Armstead and a host of defenders for the Buckeyes, who dug a hole too deep to escape with their second-half rally.

“The way we shot coming into the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, everything was falling,” Thomas said. “(Saturday), it just wasn’t our night. Nothing was falling. We had great looks, some of them, but they just weren’t falling.”

Yet after two weeks of upsets in the wild West bracket, underdog Wichita State seemed an appropriate pick to cut down Staples Center’s nets. The Shockers’ well-balanced roster managed built that enormous lead with the same consummate team play that they’ve shown throughout the tournament.

The Shockers are also the kings of Kansas, reaching the national semifinals after the powerful Jayhawks and Kansas State both went down.

Two sections packed with cheering Shockers fans provided all the encouragement necessary for a team that didn’t win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and was thought to be a bubble team for an NCAA berth. Now, Wichita State is the MVC’s first Final Four team since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the title game in 1979.

Another giant awaits the Shockers in Atlanta next weekend: They’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Midwest Regional final between Duke and Louisville.

“We’re all new to this, but I think we’re ready for this,” Early said. “We’re going to prepare ourselves, and this game was pretty good preparation. We started at the bottom, and we’ve been working our way up.”

Seven seasons after underdog George Mason crashed the Final Four and underlined college basketball’s growing parity, the Shockers are the latest smallish school to get on a big roll in the tournament. Butler made the national championship game in 2010 and 2011, and the Bulldogs were joined by that VCU team in the Final Four two years ago.

This year’s tournament included stunning wins by Florida Gulf Coast, La Salle and Harvard, but nobody kept it going longer than Wichita State.

Although the Shockers have a beautiful home arena and robust support from fans and donors in Kansas’ largest city, Marshall acknowledged that Wichita State’s athletic budget is a fraction of what a BCS school can spend. He hasn’t let it slow the Shockers, who made the NCAA tournament last year only to lose to 12th-seeded VCU in the first round.

After the Shockers easily beat La Salle two days ago to reach their first regional final since 1981, Marshall’s pregame speech to the Shockers on Saturday finished with talk of cutting down the nets at Staples Center before getting on that plane back to Kansas, saying Wichita State didn’t have to play “a perfect game” to beat mighty Ohio State.

“The Mecca awaits in Atlanta,” he said.

Marshall was right, but he couldn’t have anticipated just how imperfect Ohio State would be.

The postseason-tested Buckeyes appeared calm and confident during warmups in front of their healthy fan contingent, yet they proceeded to play the first half just like NCAA newbies.

They missed their first seven shots after the opening tip in a string capped by an airballed 3-pointer from Thomas, who missed his first five overall. The junior star was labeled “a bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker” by Marshall on Friday, but he only lived up to the first part of that billing while going 4 for 13 in the first half.

Early hit two 3-pointers in the opening minutes, and the Shockers stretched their lead to 13 points shortly before halftime.

“You’ve got to give them credit,” Craft said. “They really came out firing and we really didn’t regain our footing until it was too late.”

Hall went to the locker room after drawing a charge from Thomas early in the second half, holding the back of his head after Thomas’ elbow clipped him on the jaw. Hall found his glasses and got back in the game 66 seconds later.

Wichita State gradually stretched its lead early in the second half, with Early’s layup putting the Shockers up 53-33 with 12:09 to play.

Ross desperately tried to rally the Buckeyes, scoring eight consecutive points and leading a 23-6 run midway through the second half. Ohio State went into a full-court inbounds defense, and Shannon Scott’s free throws with 2:49 left cut the lead to 62-59 — but Ohio State couldn’t get any closer.

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