Men's Basketball

Syracuse fights off NCAA Tournament disappointment to beat UNC-Greensboro, 90-77, in NIT opener

Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

Taurean Thompson scored early and often for SU, helping the Orange pad an early double-digit lead.

In the midst of pregame warmups, a couple Syracuse players fired glares at the commotion going on at the other end of the court. As SU went through its casual shooting routine, UNC-Greensboro hollered and clapped with each made basket. Spartan players bounced from spot-to-spot on the floor as they laughed and joked, exhibiting the upbeat attitude of a team just happy to be playing.

Opposite UNCG was an SU team that wanted no part of playing again in the Carrier Dome. It was only afforded that opportunity because the National Invitation Tournament allows for it. The NCAA Tournament, which Syracuse was not invited to, takes place only at neutral sites.

Despite playing in the building that’s fostered almost all of the Orange’s success this season, SU had to fight the regret of not playing elsewhere on Wednesday night.

“It took me a little while to get over it,” Tyler Lydon said of not making the NCAA Tournament. “That’s something you work for all year, to make it to the tournament and go on a run.

“When you put in so much time and effort and it doesn’t come through, it’s really hard.”

Lydon’s sentiment is shared throughout the higher-seeded NIT teams — typically those on the brink of an NCAA Tournament berth. That’s why it comes with little surprise that No. 1 seed California and No. 2 seed Clemson already lost their first-round games. But Syracuse, dogged by that same NCAA tournament hangover and playing in front of a season-low crowd, would not share the same fate as its fellow NIT royalty.

The Orange (19-14, 10-8 Atlantic Coast) cobbled together enough scoring bursts to outpace the Spartans (25-10, 14-4 Southern), 90-77, setting up a second-round matchup with Ole Miss on Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Carrier Dome. Four double-digit scorers allowed Syracuse to extend its season at least another game, regardless if it’s still blanketed by the overwhelming disappointment felt three days ago.

“It was definitely tough. I stayed up pretty late that night,” Tyus Battle said before pausing mid-thought, “doing nothing. I was sitting on my couch.”

That’s where most Syracuse fans viewed Wednesday’s NIT opener. Either on spring break, snowed in or still harboring frustration about the Orange’s postseason placement. A season-low 4,288 individuals passed through the Carrier Dome turnstiles, doubling-down on an already sanitized atmosphere brought about by the NCAA’s secondary postseason tournament.

That prompted Lydon to address his teammates warming up on the floor before the game. Talking over the rambunctious UNCG squad, his message was simple: If fans won’t show up to create enough energy and atmosphere for us, we’ll do it ourselves.

“I guess the fans aren’t too excited about this,” head coach Jim Boeheim said, “so we’ll just do the best we can. The fans that were here were very good.”

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Jacob Greenfeld | Asst. Photo Editor

What they saw was a Syracuse team playing much like it did during nonconference play. Against an inferior opponent, it opened up a lead 22 points wide before crumbling in the final minutes to keep comeback hopes on life support. On this night, it was Diante Baldwin snatching the ball out of Lydon’s hands, hitting an open 3 and cutting UNCG’s deficit to seven points with two minutes to go.

But like Syracuse had done 16 times before at home, it held on. Taurean Thompson did just enough work in the post, scoring eight of SU’s first 12 points, before defensive miscues landed him on the bench for a majority of the game. Tyler Lydon did just enough at the bottom of the zone, corralling double-digit rebounds for the fourth straight game. Tyus Battle and Andrew White did just enough of the heavy lifting on offense, combining for 54 points and 60 percent of the Orange’s total offense.

In a lot of ways, Syracuse’s performance was like every other it’s orchestrated this year. It did just enough to win comfortably on Wednesday in a season where it did just enough to tease an NCAA Tournament berth. But at least this year, just enough was not enough.

“It’s not like we’re done,” Lydon said of any lingering disappointment. “We can still play together, still play games and try and win another championship.”

Syracuse knows it’s not playing for the title it wanted to. Even so, it still might be just enough to salvage this season.


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