By Jay Cohen
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO — This was never supposed to happen, really. Not after Syracuse staggered into the NCAA Tournament. Not after the Orange needed a big rally to eliminate Gonzaga. No way, not after falling behind against mighty Virginia, which beat Syracuse in January.
And yet there was coach Jim Boeheim, cutting down the net. Freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon, celebrating a Texas-sized comeback.
It happened, all right, sending Syracuse to perhaps the most unlikely of the school’s six Final Fours.
“I’ve never been prouder in all my 40 years as coach of a basketball team as I am of this team tonight,” Boeheim said.
Richardson scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half, and Syracuse erased a 16-point deficit on its way to a surprising 68-62 victory over the top-seeded Cavaliers in the Midwest Regional final. Exactly two weeks after the Orange were a bubble team on Selection Sunday, they returned to the Final Four for the first time since 2013.
“We had a lot of doubters,” Lydon said. “A lot of people who believed we shouldn’t even be in this tournament. I’m sure there are still a lot of people who think that. But we know what we can do as a team and that’s all that matters.”
It is perhaps the strangest turn of a topsy-turvy season. The Orange (23-13) dropped their first four ACC games. Boeheim was suspended for nine games as part of an NCAA investigation that found a history of improper benefits and academic misconduct stretching back years.
Then Syracuse lost five of six toward the end of its schedule, including a 72-71 loss to Pittsburgh in the conference tourney. But once the Orange got their at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, they found a way to turn it around.
“I think as a team collectively, we’ve been great teammates to one another, through all the highs and lows,” said Michael Gbinije, a graduate student who had 11 points and six assists against the Cavaliers. “I think it’s finally starting to pay off. We’ve got great chemistry on and off the court, and I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Syracuse becomes the first 10 seed to make it to the Final Four and just the fourth double-digit seed to accomplish the feat. It’s the lowest seeded team to reach the national semifinals since No. 11 VCU in 2011, according to STATS.
Next up is another all-ACC showdown against No. 1 seed North Carolina on Saturday in Houston. The Orange dropped both of their games against the Tar Heels this season, losing 84-73 on Jan. 9 and 75-70 on Feb. 29, but they also lost 73-65 to the Cavaliers on Jan. 24.
“Being down that much to a team like Virginia, knowing that not many teams come down from a deficit like that in the second half, it shows how good we can me when we leave it all out there, and we have to do that going forward,” forward Tyler Roberson said.
Syracuse trailed 54-39 before it ripped off 25 of the next 29 points, including 15 in a row. And Richardson led the way, often taking the ball right at Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon.
Richardson’s driving layup made it 59-58 Orange with 5:47 remaining for their first lead since early in the first half. After London Perrantes missed a long 3 for Virginia, Richardson connected from deep and smiled as he ran up the court while making circles around his eyes with his hands.
“I just had to pick it up,” he said. “I wanted to help my teammates out as best I could.”
Syracuse also trailed in the regional semifinal against Gonzaga, erasing a nine-point deficit in the final 6 1/2 minutes.
“We’ve obviously been through a lot, and this team has just stayed together,” said guard Trevor Cooney, another graduate student. “I think we learned a lot about each other throughout the whole entire year, and all those things are paying off now. We’re sticking together, believing in each other, and good things happen when you do that.”