When the buzzer finally sounded, when Wisconsin’s threes finally stopped raining through the hoop, when that last Wisconsin three-point attempt clanged off the rim and Syracuse won a 64-63 heart-stopper, freshman guard Michael Carter-Williams sprinted to center court and embraced senior point guard Scoop Jardine.
The seconds passed, and the two held on to each other: Carter-Williams, the baby-faced rookie, and Jardine, the veteran engine that makes this team run. The cheers of Syracuse fans reverberated through TD Garden. The two young men didn’t say anything, just soaked in the joy of knowing that once again they’d proved their doubters wrong. It was only as the teams began to line up for handshakes when the two finally let go.
This is what it feels like when a season of off-court drama, a season that could have gone down as the darkest in Syracuse history, gets one game away from becoming one of the finest seasons this basketball program has ever seen.
"That was a moment," Jardine said after scoring 14 points and adding four assists. "That was a moment that all the hard work we put in … all the things we had to go through this whole season, we all feel this moment right here. We didn’t really accomplish nothing yet. But just to advance in a tournament like this, it’s special."
And it was special, beating a scalding-hot Wisconsin team that drained 14 threes and that boasted the nation’s tightest defense.
But it was more special, infinitely more special, given the context: This was the season that should have gone off the rails with the allegations of sexual abuse leveled against longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine back in November.
Instead, Syracuse lost one game during the regular season. This was the season that should have come screeching to a halt a couple of weeks ago when a Yahoo! Sports report said Syracuse has repeatedly violated its own drug policy over the past decade. Nope: Boeheim’s team shook it off and secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
And this was the season in which the final straw could have been their 7-foot starting center, Fab Melo, being declared ineligible on the eve of the tournament.
Instead, here comes Syracuse, the Orange against the world, headed toward its first Elite Eight appearance since 2003, when it won the national championship.
And instead of being the team everyone counted out, players spent Thursday night answering questions about destiny. The 2003 national championship team won two tournament games in this very same arena. And head coach Jim Boeheim’s only national championship came in New Orleans, the site of this year’s Final Four. Coincidence?
"We’ve gone through so much adversity, it’s almost like it’s only right for us to win the whole thing," Carter-Williams said. "That’s how we take it."
In the second half against Wisconsin, Syracuse was running away with it, up seven with 11 minutes left. Then, over the next four minutes, Wisconsin couldn’t miss. They drained six three-pointers in a row and took the lead, one of 10 lead changes in the game.
"This is one of the best games I’ve been involved with in a long time, I think the best game anybody has ever played against us and didn’t beat us," Boeheim said.
With less than 20 seconds left and Syracuse up one, senior forward Kris Joseph was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one. He missed the front end. Wisconsin had one more shot, and the hot-shooting Jordan Taylor put up a three with a few seconds left. Syracuse sophomore guard Dion Waiters jumped. Waiters got a hand in the shooter’s face. The ball headed toward the rim.
"All you can do right there is pray," Waiters said. "I think I prayed like 60 times in two seconds … ‘God, make him miss it.’"
Less than an hour after Syracuse’s most intense game of the season had ended, Waiters sat at his locker. The Syracuse locker room felt more relieved than ecstatic. Both teams had played well enough to win, and Syracuse knew it just as easily could have ended the other way. Waiters had scored 13 points, one of four Syracuse players in double-digits. But that final moment, the ball lofting over his head, was the one that kept replaying in his head. Waiters laughed.
"I don’t want to be in that situation again."
But as that shot hit the rim and bounced to the side, and as the buzzer went off, you could feel the pent-up emotions of this Syracuse season lessen just a bit. Boeheim prides himself on teams that don’t get too high and don’t get too low. But after this nail-biter, the whole team bounded onto the court, overjoyed.
"It’s almost like a national championship," junior guard Brandon Triche said. "It’s like that release of emotion. Everybody’s nervous. You gotta be nervous."
Triche considered this roller-coaster season. They’d been through a lot as a team. All this adversity, Syracuse players said, brought them closer. Now they are one game away from heading to New Orleans, the goal the team set at the beginning of the season, the goal doubters have kept telling them they couldn’t reach.
"We’re just happy that we’re able to, not prove them wrong, but prove us right," Triche said. "We know we’re supposed to be here."
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at email@example.com.