The road to the Final Four in the NCAA men's basketball tournament has seen its share of surprises, but the improbable run of 10th-seeded Syracuse is one for the record books. In their exciting, last-second win over No. 11 Gonzaga in Chicago on Friday night and their remarkable comeback Sunday evening against the Midwest region's top seed, Virginia, Syracuse has proved its resilience by becoming only the fourth double-digit seed in tournament history to make the Final Four, defeating the Cavaliers, 68-62 – the Orange's only victory against Virginia in their last four meetings.
Coming into Sunday night's game, Virginia had beaten Syracuse three times in a row, and when they had taken a big lead in the second half, you could sense the "Here we go again" atmosphere in the arena. But Syracuse started to take chunks out of the lead with the inspired perimeter and inside play of guard Malachi Richardson (23 points). Despite a dismal 37 percent field goal shooting percentage on the night, Syracuse saved its best play for the latter part of the second half, at one point going on a 20-4 scoring binge, with Richardson hitting shots routinely from the three-point arc and driving the lane.
The Orange also got some good defensive and offensive (11 points) output from reserve forward Tyler Lydon who, at one point, made a three-pointer after losing a shoe. But the opposite was true for the Cavaliers' star Malcolm Brogdon (12 points) who, despite having 7 assists, hit only 2 of 14 from the floor, and 1 of 6 three-point shots. Syracuse also capitalized on Virginia's fouls, making 20 of 25 free throws to the Cavaliers' 10 points from the line. Syracuse, sporting an uncharacteristic "Cinderella" slipper, now meets East region No. 1 seed North Carolina next Saturday night in Houston's NRG Stadium.
South second seed Villanova has had an easy time of it in this tournament, having beaten their first three opponents by an average of 27 points, but had a tall order this weekend against the No. 1 overall seed Kansas Jayhawks in their regional final. The Jayhawks got great production from their triumvirate of guards – Frank Mason III, Wayne Selden Jr., and Devonté Graham, who combined for 49 of Kansas' 59 points in their 64-59 loss to the Wildcats on Saturday evening at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center. Villanova is now back in the Final Four for the first time since 2009, where they will face West No. 2 Oklahoma in next Saturday night's early contest.
Villanova maintained a 32-25 lead at the end of the first half, capitalizing on 10 Kansas turnovers (the Jayhawks gave it up 15 times in the game), and maintained a balanced scoring attack – Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, and Kris Jenkins (13 points each) and Daniel Ochefu (10 pts.) – which together with the Jayhawks' turnovers prevented Kansas from going on any meaningful scoring run. And the Wildcats were deadly at the foul line, making 18 of 19 attempts (95 percent) against only 7 points from the stripe for Kansas. Little things mean a lot.
Second seeded Oklahoma has only seemed to get stronger throughout the tournament, largely due to the heating up of its star guard and likely player of the year Buddy Hield. Against an athletic Oregon squad, Hield hit for 37 points, including 13-of-20 from the field and 8-of-13 from the three-point arc, and powered the Sooners to an 80-68 victory over the top-seeded Ducks in the West regional final at Anaheim's Honda Center this past Saturday night. As if he needed more motivation, Hield also benefited from an acknowledgement he received from the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, sitting two rows behind the Oklahoma bench. Hield has now scored an average of 27 points per game in the four tournament contests leading up to the Final Four.
As for Oregon, they were their own worst enemy, hitting only 4 of 21 three-pointers and a mediocre 39 percent of their field goals. The game was effectively, if surprisingly, over by halftime, with Oklahoma sporting a gaudy 18-point lead (48-30). It was an insurmountable hurdle for the Ducks. For their part, the Sooners also got solid double-figure scoring from two of its other starters, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins, who hit for 13 and 11 points, respectively, in addition to Cousins' seven assists. The Sooners will now play Villanova in Houston next Saturday.
Sunday night's East region final between No. 1 seed North Carolina and sixth seed Notre Dame had what was essentially a David and Goliath story line. UNC, with 31 wins on the year and emerging from a 15-point blowout of fifth seed Indiana on Friday night, was paired with a team that had survived a last-second win over No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, and a last half-minute victory over seventh seed Wisconsin on Friday. The Irish kept it close against the Tar Heels all first half, trading leads. But UNC ended the first half, aided by an earlier 8-0 run, up 43-38. The Irish got the score to 52-51 with 13 minutes left in the game, aided in part by a technical foul on UNC's Brice Johnson. But the Tar Heels quickly regained the lead and never looked back, going on to win, 88-74, at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center.
North Carolina shot over 64 percent from the floor in the first half, and over 61 percent for the game. Their height and athleticism also gave them an advantage on the boards (31 rebounds to Notre Dame's 14), and their superior ball handling resulted in 17 assists to the Irish's 9. And despite Notre Dame's scoring trio of V.J. Beachem, Demetrius Jackson, and Steve Vasturia combining for 55 of Notre Dame's 74 points, North Carolina got 70 points from its starting five (all in double-figures) and an impressive 18 from the reserves. The Tar Heels were just a deeper team, and even as Notre Dame was effective most of the night in slowing the pace of the game (against UNC's transition strength), they just couldn't keep up. North Carolina now meets Syracuse next Saturday in Houston, with a national championship game at stake.