Trevor Cooney arrived at the First Niagara Center knee-deep in a shooting slump, so after his first three-pointer fell on Thursday against Western Michigan he yelled and pumped his fist, a show of emotion that was more joy than liberated.
“It was only one shot,” the Syracuse University guard said. “I was just happy to give my team three points.”
Minutes later, Cooney made another three-pointer to give the Orange a 15-4 lead. It was a good omen for the Orange. Although it is point guard Tyler Ennis who powers Syracuse’s offense, senior C.J. Fair who slashes and scores and sophomore Jerami Grant collecting the most dunks on the South Region’s No. 3 seeded team, it is Cooney, and especially his shooting percentage, that often signals triumph.
Not Ennis. Not Fair. Not Grant. But Cooney, a less heralded sophomore and the Orange’s third option on some nights and the fourth on others. He did not shoot well in the later part of the season, but he turned to extra jump shots instead of self-pity.
“I’m not worried about me making shots,” Cooney said. “I just want to come out and play hard on defense and win, that’s all I want to do.”
No, the worrying will be left to No. 11 seeded Dayton (24-10), who faces the Orange (28-5) in an NCAA Tournament third-round contest at 7:10 tonight. Syracuse seemingly shook off a late-season collapse to crush Western Michigan, 77-53, in the second round on Thursday. Meanwhile the Flyers shook up a host of brackets by stunning Ohio State, 60-59. The Buckeyes have a tendency to avoid playing in-state opponents aside from the occasional Mid-American Conference foe – they beat Ohio University by 10 back in November – so the Flyers’ victory meant a bit more than merely advancing in the postseason.
The front page of the Dayton Daily News on Friday screamed, “THE University of Dayton,” poking fun at the big brother Buckeyes who refer to their school as “THE Ohio State University,” often with a dose of arrogance. Now it’s on to Syracuse.
“The name of the game right now is advancing,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said. “This is the biggest stage you can be on. This is where our program is supposed to be. We’ve gotten here, and we want to stay.”
When Syracuse is at its best, as it was against Western Michigan, it is the deadeye shooting guard from Delaware who transforms games into the Trevor Cooney Three-Point Invitational.
“The thing about shooters, I like the ones that don’t think much, or maybe can’t think much is even a better description, because they just forget things,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “They forget what happened or what didn’t happen. They just get the next shot. And the best shooters, those are the guys. They want that shot, they’re going to take it, and they don’t think about anything except getting that shot up there, and they think they’re going to make every one. That’s what the great ones do. They just get in that mode.”
Cooney has been there. For Syracuse, the more immediate effect of Cooney’s performance against Western Michigan was removing the offensive anxieties that had prevailed for nearly a month. The Orange had won only two of its previous seven games.
“It opens up a lot when he’s got it going,” Ennis said. “Just the driving lanes for Jerami and C.J. It just helps everything for me. When we play defense and our energy is up and we’re feeling good defensively, our offense follows that and we focus on Trevor and getting him the ball.”
The Orange were relieved that Cooney had finally broken out of his slump by hitting 5 of 10 shots and scoring 16 points. Since matching a program record with nine three-pointers in a win over Notre Dame last month, Cooney had hit just 19 percent (10-for-51) from long distance.
But Cooney took a glass-half-full approach. He led the ACC in three-point field goals made (2.7 per game) and was sixth in three-point field-goal percentage (38.1 percent).
“I just kept shooting,” Cooney said. “The thing was with me I shot it really well earlier in the season and I still led the ACC in threes, I think a lot of people forget that. I still made 85 threes this season and I never got down on myself because I knew I can make threes. I know I’m a good shooter, that’s what I work on and I work every day at it. You can’t get down on yourself when you work every day at something.”
He leaned on Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara, who went through the peaks and valleys of shooting when he played for the Orange.
“Sometimes you go through the ultimate high – he was shooting 42 percent from the three-point line in the beginning of the season, which are astronomical numbers, and then you hit a little bit of a skid,” McNamara said. “This is his first year of significant competition coming off a year where he didn’t get a lot of minutes. Fatigue could be a factor in that.”
McNamara added that Cooney might be getting a second wind in the tournament.
“You’re in the postseason and excitement and adrenaline take over, it’s refreshing for him,” he said. “As a shooter, you’re going to have ups and downs and the biggest thing is to stay confident and believe in yourself and go out and when you have open shots you go out and shoot them with conviction.”