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Syracuse hopes clock hasn't hit 12

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- 108-69.

The score speaks of one-sided butchery, the type of obliteration most commonly associated with tiny schools facing the likes of Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But it was DePaul's rout of Syracuse University on March 2, a loss so disturbing to Gerry McNamara that he pulled his jersey over his head and sobbed uncontrollably.

"I was thinking about the NIT, and I'll be the first to tell you I was," McNamara said. "I thought that was it for us."

Then Syracuse, a college basketball powerhouse, turned into a Cinderella.

The Orange entered last week's Big East Tournament on the NCAA bubble but went on to slay Cincinnati, Connecticut, Georgetown and Pittsburgh by a total of eight points to capture the conference tournament title.

In the process, college basketball rediscovered McNamara. Labeled overrated prior to the tournament, McNamara should be called "Bondsman" after bailing out the Orange with late-game heroics. So after the most improbable run in Big East Tournament history, does Syracuse have any magic left?

"We know we did a great thing but you have to look past it because the season's not over," said McNamara, who will lead the fifth-seeded Orange (23-11) in an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup against 12th-seeded Texas A&M (21-8) tonight at Jacksonville Memorial Arena (9:30 p.m., Ch. 4). "You can enjoy it, but when you're still in the moment, you can't enjoy it yet and that's going to be the key for us. If we still feel like we have to move forward, we're going to be fine but if we're complacent and content then we're not going to be fine."

Just last week, Syracuse's spot in the NCAAs was as certain as a snow-free January in Central New York.

The Orange was 19-11 and with its NCAA hopes already fading, Syracuse allowed 108 points to DePaul and 92 to Villanova in the regular season finale. Darryl Watkins played center, but little showed up in the box score, Terrence Roberts dropped only hints of his potential but not consistently. Demetris Nichols was solid, Matt Gorman was glued to the bench and Eric Devendorf couldn't guard a can of paint, even in Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone.

Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim said the struggles were a product of the Orange's schedule. During one cheerless four-game stretch Syracuse suffered losses to UConn, Villanova, Pitt and Seton Hall, but Boeheim didn't offer an excuse for losing to a middling team like DePaul by 39 points.

"The DePaul game was the one game where we didn't play well," Boeheim said. "But a lot of that was DePaul."

With the Orange's tournament hopes in doubt, Boeheim offered a challenge. Watkins, Roberts and the others needed to take it up a notch and everyone needed to close quicker on the shooters on defense. If that happened, maybe McNamara could shoot Syracuse into the NCAAs.

"No one wanted to be at home in the NIT playing home games and going back to the (Madison Square) Garden," said Roberts, a junior forward. "The main focus for us was getting back to the NCAA Tournament and we all put our heads together and said, 'We're going to do this.' "

While McNamara hit the winning three that bounced Cincinnati, all five starters finished in double figures. In the win over UConn, McNamara sent the game into overtime with an NBA-range three-pointer but shot just 3 of 14 with five turnovers. But once again, Syracuse benefited from five starters in double figures. Against Georgetown, Gorman's steal led to a Devendorf layup off a pretty left-handed feed from McNamara with 9.3 seconds remaining for the victory. In the championship it was Nichols who led the Orange in scoring and Josh Wright who nailed four consecutive free throws to ice the game against Pitt.

For the tournament, McNamara averaged 16.2 points, roughly the same as his scoring input for the season (16.4), but his teammates stepped up. None was bigger than Watkins who averaged 9.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks during the last four games of the regular season. In the tournament, the 6-foot-11 Watkins bumped up the numbers to 11.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.

"We had better balance in New York," Boeheim said. "That was the key to winning."

If they get more of the same, Syracuse's giddy run will continue. Then, come April, McNamara might cry tears of joy.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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