WASHINGTON Hey, Atlanta! The Orange is coming.
Complete with a devastating defense, a suddenly revived offense and a confidence level that has gone through the roof the past three weeks.
Capping off an unbelievable eight-game stretch, Syracuse University booked its return to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in a decade Saturday with a resounding 55-39 win over Marquette at the Verizon Center in the East Region championship game, with President Barack Obama in attendance.
SU (30-9), the fourth seed here, will meet either Michigan (29-7) or Florida (29-7), who play in todays South Region final, in the national semifinals Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
James Southerland led the SU attack with 16 points, C.J. Fair added 13 and regional MVP Michael Carter-Williams collected 12 points, eight rebounds and six steals as the Orange made its fifth Final Four and fourth under coach Jim Boeheim.
Were happy because it took a lot of hard work to get here, said Southerland, who made three 3-point field goals. But were not satisfied. Two more wins and well be satisfied.
SUs vaunted 2-3 zone, limiting its prior three NCAA opponents to 29 percent shooting overall and 15 percent from 3-point range, was even better against the third-seeded Golden Eagles.
Marquette (26-9) made only 12-of-53 shots (22.9 percent) and hit only 3-of-24 (12.5 percent) from behind the arc.
Its probably the best four-or-five-game defensive stretch I can remember, said Boeheim, who guided the Orange to the 2003 national title, the last time it had made it this far. Thursday (against Indiana), were tremendous. Today we were very good, and just good enough on offense.
Its hard to believe than exactly three weeks ago, in this same building, the Orange hit its low point of the season in a 61-39 loss to Big East Conference foe Georgetown.
But as SU senior guard Brandon Triche (nine points, three assists) said Saturday, We pretty much made a 360-degree transformation since that game. I cant say we didnt lose some confidence. But we stayed positive, that was the most important thing. And James and I as seniors stepped up and tried to lead a little better.
What followed was a superb four-game stretch at the Big East Tournament before SU finally ran out of gas against Louisville in the title game on March 16.
SU then culminated in a successful trip to California for the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and a tour de force here by pounding top-seeded Indiana and a Marquette team that beaten the Orange in the only conference meeting of the season on Feb. 25.
Im really happy for the players, Boeheim said. We got back to believing in ourselves, starting in New York, and it carried over in a tough trip out West. I thought we really played well most of the year, but had a tough stretch against very good teams. The key is if you pick yourself up and start competing hard again, and we did.
Marquette coach Buzz Williams was succinct in his postgame remarks. They beat us from start to finish. No excuses. We basically tried everything collectively, but nothing worked.
SU didnt have a great offensive game, shooting just 38 percent from the floor. But it came up with plenty of key baskets to stop potential Marquette runs, and relied on its imposing defense to take the Golden Eagles out of sync.
Our intensity level today was sky-high, and it showed on both ends, Carter-Williams said. Weve taken so much pride in our defense, its easy to be active and rely on each other. Our team chemistry is so much better than it was a month ago.
Leading 24-18 at halftime, SU managed just two baskets in the opening seven minutes of the second half, allowing Marquette to hang around.
But Fair hit consecutive hoops on the baseline that Boeheim termed the biggest of the game, Southerland then finished a strong drive and hit the ensuing free throw, and Carter-Williams contributed a driving basket to extend the lead back to 12 points with 10:51 to play.
Marquette never got closer than nine points, at the under eight-minute TV timeout, before SU put the finishing touches on the win with an 8-0 run.
They actually had some good looks from the three, but couldnt hit anything, Boeheim said. It wasnt a great offensive game because you had two great defenses. I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping the ball out of the post, where they hurt us last time.
Marquette made 29 of 35 free throws in its home win last month.
After Vander Blue, who led Marquette with 14 points, hit a 3-pointer to open the scoring, SU scored the next seven points and extended the lead to 12-5 after a Fair follow shot.
Marquette went over five minutes without a field goal, and had just two baskets with 6½ minutes left when the Orange held a 19-7 lead.
But Davante Gardner, who scored 26 points in the first meeting, scored seven quick points, Marquette went on an 8-0 run and trimmed the Orange lead to 21-18.
SU clung to a six-point halftime lead. But they held firm and earned what many people thought was just a pipe-dream a few short weeks ago.