By: Jeffrey Newholm
Sunday began as a day of tantalizing promise for Syracuse Orange fans, but that promise was muted by the tyranny of realistic expectations.
The Lady Orange had a 50/50 chance (per FiveThirtyEight’s projections) to knock off #7 seed Tennessee and advance to their first Final Four, but the team was too far ahead of schedule for their unexpected run to garner fan enthusiasm.
Less than 4,000 Orange fans bothered to show up for the Ladies’ second round playoff game at the Carrier Dome-not even a tenth of its capacity. Furthermore, most of the excitement was already over, as the Orange had already beaten #1 seed South Carolina, the overwhelming favorite to win the regional.
The Orange rolled to victory after the Vols ran out of gas, but most Orange fans figured that would be the end of their excitement for the weekend.
After all, the Gentlemen Orange only needed to beat Dayton, Middle Tennessee, and Gonzaga to get to the Elite Eight-hardly a murderer’s row. Waiting for them was top seed Virginia, a team that looked dominant in its first three wins and was hungry for more, seeing as the program hadn’t been to the Final Four in 32 years.
When the Cavaliers nailed a three to push the lead to 15 with less than 10 minutes left, it seemed to be the dagger to the Oranges’ hart. But the Orange responded with a furious and unthinkable run. Less than four minutes later, the deficit was completely gone. After freshman Malachi Richardson went on a personal 7-0 run, the Orange were suddenly up six at the final “under four” media timeout.
After a routine closeout of inbounds and free throws, the men had completed perhaps the most unlikely double Final Four in NCAA history.
A look back at previous double Final Fours reveals just how unlikely the Oranges’ accomplishment was. In the history of Division I, there has been 12 such doubles, with UConn having four, including both double titles. Most of the previous schools, such as Duke, Texas, and Oklahoma, had powerhouse women’s programs and at least a decent men’s program.
But the Lady Orange had never been to the Sweet 16 prior to 2016, let alone a Final Four. The program averaged only 710 fans a game last year and didn’t seem to try too hard to boost that figure this year: room was made for Morgan State and Coppin State to come to Syracuse, but somehow there wasn’t room for UConn, despite the Huskies’ desire to give Syracuse native Breanna Stewart a homecoming game.
The ladies only had a 7% chance to beat South Carolina, and that was before the Gamecocks took an 11 point lead with only 14 minutes to go. But USC suddenly seemed to lose focus, jacking up and missing three after three despite not being a good downtown shooting team. The Orange was gradually able to chip away at the deficit and then build a lead until the horn sounded with the team up eight.
And the gentlemen were an even bigger long shot.
True, the Orange men weren’t exactly an unknown with five Final Fours, including one just three years ago. But the program seemed to be in shambles with a postseason ban self-imposed in 2015 for academic misconduct, including a suspension for Hall-Of-Fame coach Jim Boeheim and a forfeiture of 108 of his wins. Stuck in the same half bracket as co-favorite Michigan State, the tenth-seeded Orange was given a measly .8% chance to go to the Final Four.
But numerous upsets from Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga busted most of the Midwest bracket before the Orange busted the rest themselves by stunning the Cavs.
With both Orange teams being extreme long shots to win the title, Orange fans shouldn’t hold their breath for a double title. But Syracuse’s accomplishment is already historic. For this year’s men’s team and unheralded women’s team both able to shock the nation, 2016 is one shining moment that shines especially bright for Syracuse, the most unexpected basketball mecca March has ever seen.