Improbable second-half turnaround leads to stunner

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – For those of you who turned off last night’s ESPN game between Massachusetts and Syracuse at halftime, nobody blames you.

Those who decided to stick it out send you their condolences.

In what seemed almost impossible at halftime – with UMass trailing 43-24 at and missing nearly everything – the Minutemen engineered an improbable comeback victory, 81-77, in a game that had all the drama of an NCAA Tournament game.

With the way the Orange played defensively during the first 20 minutes, it’s no surprise that UMass shot 10-of-43 overall, including 2-of-15 from 3-point range in the first half. Syracuse played a swarming zone defense that forced UMass to take highly-contested outside shots that often failed to draw iron or that were sent back emphatically in the other direction.

“If you had shown me those numbers before the game that Ricky [Harris], Chris Lowe, Etienne [Brower] and Gary [Forbes] would have those numbers at halftime, I would have literally said we would have been down 35,” UMass coach Travis Ford said after the game. “We were like [4-for-31] combined from those four guys; it was outlandish.”

But for some reason, everything changed during the 15 minute intermission. Ford knows precisely why.

“The way we play, being down 19 points is not really a big deal – but I wasn’t worried about being down 19, I was worried with how we were playing,” he said. “We had to make a few adjustments against their zone and those adjustments seemed to work.

“And when we would score, we were able to get our press on, which helped us fatigue them,” he added.

The adjustments the Minutemen made allowed them to finally get good looks in the second half, as the Syracuse defense grew tired and failed to challenge shots as they had in the first half. And just like UMass did in its first victory over the Orange back on Nov. 28 – when it scored a visiting team Carrier Dome record with 107 points – they knocked down any and all open looks from 3-point range.

And similar to Act 1, the main culprit that did Syracuse in was Ricky Harris – with help this time from Etienne Brower. After combining for eight points and missing on all but two of their 10 3-point attempts, the duo exploded in the second half for 34 points on an incredible 8-of-12 performance from the perimeter.

“The last eight minutes I told our guys, ‘If you can just get some stops, we’ll score at the other end,'” Ford said. “We got those key stops and our guys just stuck with our system – you know this is not the first time we’ve come back from a lot of points down this year. We’ve done this more than once.

“It’s not an easy way to play, but we’ve seemed to do this quite a few times,” he added.

The Minutemen did it just a few days ago to get here, coming back from a 12-point deficit with about eight minutes remaining against Akron on March 22 for the 68-63 victory.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was left practically speechless during the postgame press conference, after the Minutemen stunned his team again, this time ending his season.

“The only way they could get back in the game was with pressure, and we have seven guys and we got tired a little bit,” Boeheim admitted after the game. “But we handled the pressure overall alright – we actually had less turnovers in the second half (nine) than we did in the first half (10) – but we missed too many lay-ups.”

And those who turned the TV off missed everything.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]