The Big East player of the year, who often
defers to his teammates despite his considerable all-around talent,
scored a career-high 31 points and pulled down 14 rebounds as top-seeded
Syracuse hit a dozen 3-pointers to stun the Zags 87-65 on Sunday in the
second round of the NCAA tournament.
“Really, my mindset was to be aggressive on
defense, so I think that carried over to the offensive end,” said
Johnson, who is finally healed from an injury to his right [shooting]
hand in February against Connecticut. “My shot was falling.”
Was it ever.
Johnson was 11-of-16 from the field, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and he wasn’t alone. Andy Rautins hit 7 of 13
shots for 24 points and freshman Brandon Triche had his second straight
solid game, finishing with 13 points.
“When they shoot the ball like that, they’re
hard to handle,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re an impressive
Syracuse’s storybook season — the Orange were
unranked before the season and made it to No. 1 for the final week
before losing to Georgetown in the Big East tournament — continues on
Thursday. The Orange (30-4) will play fifth-seeded Butler (30-4) in Salt
Lake City in the West Regional.
Gonzaga (27-7) was trying to become the second
team from the West Coast Conference to shock the Big East — WCC
tournament champ Saint Mary’s stunned second-seeded Villanova on
Saturday — but they were no match for the Orange.
Syracuse, which made the round of 16 for the
second straight year, again played without 6-foot-9, 260-pound senior
center Arinze Onuaku, who’s recovering from a knee injury. Even without
Onuaku, the Orange stifled Vermont in the first round, holding the
Catamounts to 5-of-22 on 3-point attempts, and continued their surge
The Zags made just 3-of-21 from beyond the arc
against Syracuse’s aggressive zone defense and shot 41.7 percent for
the game, well below their season average of nearly 50 percent.
Syracuse, which leads in nation in field-goal percentage, shot 60.7
percent in the first half when it took control and 54.7 percent for the
Rautins hit three 3s in the first 3 minutes of
the second half to extend the lead to 24 points.
“Try to stay aggressive and set the tone for
the second half,” Rautins said. “When Wes and I are hitting our shots,
we’re a tough team to beat.”
Elias Harris led Gonzaga with 24 points and
Robert Sacre had 17 points and eight rebounds. Senior Matt Bouldin, the
team’s leading scorer at 16 points a game, was 3-of-13 from the field,
missing all six shots he took from beyond the arc. He had eight points,
all in the second half.
“It’s been a great ride,” Bouldin said. “It
hurts. I’m sad, but I’m happy in some ways. Four best years of my life
Gonzaga dropped to 0-5 against top seeds in
In the hallway about a half-hour before the
opening tip, Sacre was overheard calling Syracuse “soft” and a bunch of
“pretty boys,” encouraging the Zags to take the game to the Orange.
The Zags needed more than words on this day,
Syracuse danced around Onuaku before the
opening tip, all of them smiling widely as the partisan crowd roared
“Let’s Go Orange!” and then dominated the first half behind Johnson and
Triche, who combined for 28 points, hitting 5-of-8 from beyond the arc
as Syracuse built a 15-point halftime lead.
Even when 6-9 Rick Jackson, the key to the
Orange defense inside without Onuaku, went to the bench with his third
foul with 8:58 left in the opening half, the Orange barely missed a beat
with 7-foot freshman DaShonte Riley on the court.
“This team has had such great cohesiveness all
year no matter what five guys are on the floor,” Rautins said. “We’re
all on the same page.”
Syracuse went on a 9-0 run to take a
double-digit lead. Kris Joseph, a fierce driver, streaked along the
baseline and was fouled by the 7-foot Sacre, his second. That sent him
to the bench and Syracuse continued to attack. Triche bounced in a 3 and
converted a pretty left-handed layup off the glass and Johnson hit a
pull-up jumper from just inside the foul line to give the Orange a 31-21
lead at 6:45.
The Zags regrouped after a timeout and closed
to 32-28 on two free throws by Harris with 3:59 left.
Undaunted, the Orange hit their next five
shots and closed the half with a 15-4 run. Rautins scored the first five
points and Triche fed Johnson for a 3 from the wing to boost the lead
to 41-28 with 1:49 remaining.
The Zags were clearly frustrated, and it
showed. When Steven Gray whistled a pass that sailed out of bounds along
the baseline, his shoulders were slumped and his head was down as he
slowly made his way back down the court.
“This team has come to play every game,”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after his 829th career victory. “I’ve
never had a team that’s come to play every game.”
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