|1995-1996 Syracuse Orangemen|
|Overall||29-9||NCAA National Champion Runner Up ; Final Four||Schedule Results|
Coach: Jim Boeheim
Syracuse lost three starters from the previous season, and almost lost a fourth. John Wallace had the option to go in the NBA draft as a junior, and may have been a mid-first round pick. He weighed his options, and decided to come back to Syracuse for his senior season, and it proved to be a great decision in the eyes of Syracuse fans.
Lazarus Sims took over the point guard position, and the fifth year senior showed tremendous poise and skill at the position, despite it being his first season as a starter. Otis Hill and J.B. Reafsnyder formed a formidable center combination, combining for 18.2 ppg, and 8.9 rebounds. Todd Burgan blossomed in the traditional Syracuse swingman role, taking over for the departed Luke Jackson. Sweet shooting Marius Janulis and junior college transfer Jason Cipolla would provide a nice duo on the perimeter.
Wallace would lead the way for the Orangemen, leading them in scoring 30 of the 38 games that season with five games with 30+ points. Syracuse got off to a hot start winning their first eleven games, including impressive early season victories over Providence, St. John's, Arizona, Illinois, and Rhode Island. Their first loss of the season would occur in the Maui Classic Championship, in a game the Orangemen would come up flat against Massachusetts.
The beginning of the Big East season was harsh on the Orangemen, losing five of the first eight conference games (including all four road games). Jim Boeheim made some roster adjustments, moving Cipolla into the starting line up in place of Janulis to gain some extra size and defense, and having Cipolla and Burgan switch off between forward and guard. After a couple of games, the formation settled in and the Orangemen started to gel again as a team. The team would go 8-1 down the stretch in the regular season, and were poised to make a run in the Big East tournament, though they could not earn a first round bye in the tournament. The St. John's game was memorable as Wallace scored 30 points, and Sims recorded the rare triple double. They would finish the regular season at 22-7.
Wallace dominated Notre Dame and Boston College in the first two games of the tournament, putting up a combined 57 points. Connecticut proved to be too much in the semi-final game as the Huskies won easily 85-67.
In the NCAA tournament the Orangemen were a #4 seed, and drew Montana State in the first round, who them easily beat. In the second round they drew Drexel The team struggled in the first half, with the score being 24-24, and Wallace and Burgan having poor shooting games. However, the Orangemen turned up the pressure in the second half and some nice guard play by Sims helped the team to an easy second half victory.
The third round saw the Orangemen playing favored Georgia Bulldogs in what would turn out to be one of Syracuse's most memorable games ever. Syracuse played a great first half, pulling out to a seven point lead. The Bulldogs would go on a 20-3 run in the second half to take a 10 point lead, and Wallace was on the bench with four fouls. Things looked glum for Syracuse. Then Sims, who seldom shot, made two three pointers. Boeheim gambled and brought Wallace back into the game, despite his four fouls, and the team played an aggressive pressure defense. The Orangemen regained the lead with 5 minutes to play.
However, they were faulty at the free throw line down the stretch, and Georgia had the lead as time was expiring. Wallace was looking for a shot, but was too well covered. He Cipolla moving open along the baseline, and threw an overhead pass to Cipolla, who squared and launched a sixteen footer as he fell out of bounds on the left sideline. The ball went through the hoop as time expired, and the game went into overtime! Overtime was a see-saw battle. Syracuse was up by one with seven seconds to go, when Georgia's Pertha Robinson nailed a three pointer from the corner to give the Bulldogs a one point lead. Syracuse opted not to call a timeout, and John Wallace brought the ball down the court as efficiently as any guard could, dribbling through heavy coverage He launched a three pointer with seven seconds remaining, and made the basket, giving the Orangemen the two point victory! The team would advance to the elite eight. Wallace would finish the game with 30 points and 15 rebounds, and one of the most memorable shots in Syracuse history.
Next the Orangemen would play 2nd seeded Kansas with talented Paul Pierce, Raef Lafrenz and Jacques Vaughn. Syracuse missed some key free throws down the stretch to let Kansas pull within three. Then Otis Hill was fouled with 22 seconds to go. With all his teammates waiting on the defensive end of the court, Hill made both free throws to give Syracuse a five point lead. Kansas' Vaughn then nailed a three point shot to bring the game back within two points. Cipolla, hero of the Georgia game, was fouled. He would miss his first free throw, but make his second, giving Syracuse a three point lead. Kansas took a last second shot to try, but failed, and the Orangemen advanced to the school's third Final Four.
Syracuse met upstart the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Final Four. The talk before the game was wondering if Syracuse could stop the dominant inside play of Bulldog Erick Dampier. As it turned out, the Orangemen had a lot of trouble stopping Dampier and the Bulldogs off the boards, as Syracuse was out rebounded 41-21. However, the Orangemen played pressure trapping defense for most of the game, and forced 21 turnovers from Mississippi State. The Orangemen made 20 of 24 free throws in the game, as they won 77-69 to go to the National Championship.
Syracuse would face heavily favored Kentucky in the championship game. Kentucky had be ranked #1 all season, had a very deep bench, and typically ran other teams off the court. A sub plot to the game was Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who was Jim Boeheim's first assistant, when Boeheim had become Syracuse head coach back in 1976. Most experts thought that Syracuse, who only played seven guys a game, would have no chance against the Wildcats.
Syracuse, however, successfully dictated the tempo of the game, keeping the action at a slow deliberate pace. Kentucky forced the pressure, and Syracuse turned the ball over a lot (24 times), but they refused to rush their game. At half time, Syracuse was down 42-33, and things looked bad. However, they slowly crept back into the game. With just over two minutes to go, Syracuse was down by 4 points, and had the ball. They had a chance to get within a basket, but were unable to convert. Wallace committed his fifth foul of the game, and would be unavailable for the end. In the end, the more talented Kentucky team would win, but not until Syracuse had given them a valiant effort. Wallace finished the game with 29 points and 10 rebounds, on 11 of 19 shooting from the field. Burgan also ended up with a strong effort of 19 points on seven of ten shooting, and eight rebounds before he fouled out. As a team the team shot 50% from the floor, and held high flying Kentucky to 38% from the floor. In the end the turnovers made the difference.
It was an unfortunate ending to a wonderful season for the Orangemen, who saw a senior put a team on his back and try to carry them through the playoffs, with some critical plays from his teammates at the right moments. Wallace would lead the Orangemen in scoring in all nine post season games. The senior class that had started their careers at Syracuse when it was banned from post season activity, had almost won the national championship.
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