After winning the rest of the regular-season slate and the ECAC playoffs, the Orange was a five-foot jump shot away from losing to LaSalle in the NCAA opener at the Palestra. Joe Bryant missed. SU won in overtime. Then, Divine Providence!|
Despite shooting .653 from the field, North Carolina—the taller favorites from Tobacco Road—was stunned by the Orange in the East Regional semis, 78-76. It was a backcourt brawl in the Providence Civic Center. The Tar Heels’ tandem of Phil Ford and southpaw Brad Hoffman scored 44 between them, while SU’s Jimmy Lee and Jimmy “Don’t Call Me Bug” Williams combined for 43. With the clock winding down and SU, trailing by one, having called its final time-out, the ball went to star frontcourt player Rudy “Rag Man” Hackett. “I saw Phil Ford and the boys coming. So I threw it right out to ‘Rat’ (Lee). I knew he’d be there,” Hackett said afterward. “He’s been there for three years.”
With five seconds remaining, from 18 feet away, Lee let it fly. Nothing but net. It wasn’t so neat and clean in the regional final with Kansas State. Again the clock was :05 from midnight, when Cinderella’s carriage would turn into an Orange pumpkin. Regional MVP Chuckie Williams’s bomb from the left corner had given Kansas State the lead by two. Following a time-out, SU inbounded to Williams, who raced up the left sideline in a blur and hit Hackett from more than 20 feet away. For just an instant, which seemed to the Orange faithful an eternity, Hackett fumbled the ball. But he put it in over the front rim and SU was just an overtime away from the Final Four. SU rolled by eight in OT. “California, Here We Come!” the next day’s headline at home read.
And if losing to giant Kentucky by 16 and Louisville in OT doesn’t now seem the greatest of Final Fours, realize how improbable the whole trip was back then for a program that was not national in scope, merely regional.
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It was all different 12 years later. Boeheim had taken over for his boss, Danforth, whose decision to leave after the 1975-76 season and go to Tulane was misguided, to say the least. Surely it cost him millions of greenbacks. Boeheim won 100 games his first four seasons. The Carrier Dome opened. The Big East Conference gave the Orange added identity in a league laden with big media markets. It was the most televised hoop conference in the country, and SU’s recruiting wings stretched coast to coast.
The talent was considerable on the '87 team that won a school-record 31 games and beat Florida, North Carolina, and Providence to go from the Sweet 16 to the last whirl around the Big Dance floor. There was Sherman Douglas, Rony Seikaly, rookie rebounding phenom Coleman—longtime NBA players still—plus Greg Monroe, who delivered treys in the first year of collegiate three-point shooting, and homegrown Howard Triche.
An SU-Indiana final was a virtual toss-up, and that’s the way it played out. Coleman could have iced it at the foul line, but he didn’t. And in the closing seconds, a left-side 16-footer by Indiana’s Keith Smart went in, instead of spinning out as Bryant’s had from close range a dozen years before. Hoosiers, 74-73. Little consolation that it was one of the great NCAA finals.
A cloud fell over the program with NCAA probation in ’92, keeping the team at home during postseason play the following March and affecting recruiting beyond that. But one blemish on an otherwise clean slate is a thing of the past.
No consolation needed in ’96, when hometown playmaker Lazarus Sims pointed the way as once again the Orange needed a Harry Houdini escape to advance in the Round of 16. In the West Region semis in Denver, Georgia scrapped like ’Dogs, but Wallace found Jason Cipolla for a buzzer-beating jumper from the left corner that spelled OT. Wallace’s last-gasp bomb from just over mid-court won it in overtime, 83-81.
Then, favored Kansas fell by three. In the Final Four at the Meadowlands, Mississippi State went down by eight. Kentucky, a double-digit favorite coached by former Boeheim aide Rick Pitino, was taken to the final four minutes before winning it all by nine.
Through much of it all—including this season, in which SU had a 19-0 start, was the last unbeaten Division 1 team to fall, and won a share of the Big East regular-season title—the two constants have been James Arthur Boeheim and the fans. Surely, J.A.B. has been here forever. Didn’t he come with the old furniture and just never leave?
And while the turnstile count has dwindled in recent years, SU remains among the leaders at the gate. When next you watch the Orangemen, capture the moment. But pause a moment to remember all the yesterdays. You’ll enjoy it even more.
Bob Snyder has been a sports columnist/writer for The Syracuse Newspapers since 1965. A 1962 graduate of SU, he’s a past recipient of the ECAC Sports Information Directors’ Award for contributions in coverage of athletics. Snyder’s second book—Syracuse Basketball: A Century of Memories—was published in 1999 (see Cover to Cover).
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