WASHINGTON — Syracuse University is on the cusp of another Final Four, riding a suffocating defense and a wave of offensive confidence into a second straight NCAA Tournament regional final.
The No. 4-seed Orange forged an early double-digit lead, confused high-scoring Indiana all game on defense and made enough good plays on offense to post a 61-50 win over the top-seeded Hoosiers in Thursday’s East Regional semifinal at the Verizon Center.
Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams had a huge game for SU, scoring a career-high 24 points. Senior Brandon Triche added 14 points and junior C.J. Fair 11 for the Orange (29-9), which will play Big East foe and third-seed Marquette at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in the regional championship game.
The Golden Eagles dominated second-seeded Miami 71-61 in the first semifinal. Marquette beat SU 74-71 in Milwaukee on Feb. 25.
Indiana (29-7), which lost in the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, was held to nearly 30 points under its season average, shot just 33 percent and looked confused against the vaunted Orange 2-3 zone for most of the game.
“Our defense has been good all year, but tonight it was better than good,’’ SU coach Jim Boeheim said. “We wanted to get on their 3-point shooters and not let them good looks. And then we were able to recover quickly back inside on their big guys.’’
SU recorded 12 steals and 10 blocks and held the Hoosiers to 3-of-15 on 3-pointers.
“They might have seen a zone, but not our zone,’’ Triche said. “Everybody was moving and it was so active. They really looked confused early in the game and we took advantage of that.’’
And while the SU defense was handcuffing Indiana at every turn, the SU offense was predicated on bigger guards Carter-Williams and Triche, taking the ball right at the Hoosiers’ under-sized guards.
“Our mindset was to be aggressive right from the start, and make them stop us,’’ said Carter-Williams, who shot 9-for-19 from the floor and hit three 3-pointers. “Our goal was to come out and go as hard as we could. Then when we got up, we never took our foot off the pedal.’’
Victor Oladipo paced the Hoosiers with 16 points.
“Let’s face facts. We haven’t seen a zone like that,’’ Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “But we also didn’t take care of the ball well enough, we didn’t do a good job of entering the ball from the right spots and we did a poor job of stopping their guards from penetrating. Then we never got over the hump to allow a real comeback.’’
After dominating the first half and taking a 34-22 lead, the Orange got a little sloppy in the opening minutes of the second half and allowed Indiana to finally gain some momentum.
The Hoosiers, who couldn’t do much right the first half, scored the first five points of the second half before a Triche drive and dunk stopped a short Orange drought.
But after a hot start, Indiana went cold again, notching just one more basket over a four-minute span. SU built the lead back to 42-32 at the under 12-minute TV timeout.
Carter-Williams then took over. He scored seven points, including a 3-pointer, and Triche added two free throws as SU expanded the lead to 51-37 with just 7:25 remaining.
Indiana got no closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
SU executed its half-court offense superbly the first half and completely stifled an offense that was averaging nearly 80 points per game.
The SU backcourt of Carter-Williams (12) and Triche (8) combined for 20 first-half points. Meanwhile, the Orange held the Hoosiers to just 19 shots and 37 percent shooting, including only 1-of-7 on 3-pointers, and scored 12 points off 12 Indiana turnovers.
The Orange 2-3 zone held the Hoosiers without a field goal until the 13:44 mark of the first half.
Triche had two early hoops for SU, Carter-Williams added consecutive buckets and Southerland capped off a 9-0 run with a 3-pointer as the Orange jumped out to an 11-3 lead.
Carter-Williams then contributed a three, Triche two more inside hoops and Fair a 15-foot jumper as the Orange built a surprising 20-9 lead with 6:53 left before halftime.
Indiana began the half 1-for-6 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times in the opening 13 minutes.
The margin grew to as much as 29-11 with 3:40 left after a Fair follow shot. Indiana was just happy to even be within 15 points as they headed to the locker room to regroup after a sluggish 20 minutes.
nNOTES: SU is now 59-35 in its 36th NCAA Tournament, and Boeheim improved to 51-27. He ranks fourth in career coaching wins in the tournament. ... .SU is now 4-1 all-time against Indiana.