CBSN

Syracuse Hangs On To Win NCAA Title

Syracuse' players react after winning the championship game 81-78 against Kansas at the Final Four Monday, April 7, 2003, in New Orleans.
AP
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim got the final four seconds right this time.

His freshmen were fabulous early and the "Helicopter" swooped in late to give the Orangemen and their coach the championship that had eluded them for decades.

First-year players Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara helped the Orange take a big lead and Hakim Warrick made a huge block at the end to preserve a thrilling 81-78 victory over Kansas on Monday night.

"We played the best first half we could play, and then we just hung on," said Boeheim, in his 27th year at his alma mater.

Leading by three, Warrick missed two free throws that would have sealed the game with 13.5 seconds left. But the 6-foot-8 forward, nicknamed "The Helicopter" for his 7-foot armspan, made up for it by coming from nowhere to swat Michael Lee's 3-point attempt from the corner that would have tied it with 1.5 seconds left.

"I definitely wanted to go out there and make a play after missing those free throws," Warrick said. "I saw a guy open in the corner and I knew they needed to hit a 3, so I just tried to fly at him."

Jayhawks guard Kirk Hinrich, cold all night, followed with an airball at the buzzer and the Orangemen (30-5) ran onto the floor to celebrate the program's first title.

Boeheim threw his arms in the air and ran to shake hands with Roy Williams, the 15-year Kansas coach who was deprived once again of the championship.

The coach was choked up, not only by the loss, but the knowledge he'll never again coach Hinrich or fellow senior Nick Collison, who finished with 19 points and 21 rebounds.

"I've never been one to like moral victories, and I don't like this one," Williams said. "But I love the competitiveness of my kids."

Indeed, they had quite a hill to climb, and quite a group of players to stop.

McNamara hit six 3-pointers, all in the first half, to finish with 18 points. Anthony showed he is certainly ready for the NBA if he chooses, fighting off a bad back to finish with 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

"All my hard work just paid off tonight," Anthony said. "I paid a physical toll the whole night, the whole tournament. The whole season, everybody's been beating me up. Coach told me to tough it up."

Sixteen years ago, Syracuse lost by one to Indiana on Keith Smart's game-winner with four seconds left on the same Superdome floor. Boeheim said he wanted to get the last four seconds right this time, and he did - just barely.

"I didn't want it to be another one of those Keith Smart shots," Warrick said, referring to his game-saving block.

Boeheim added, "I think this building kind of owed us one."

After the first half, it didn't look as if he'd have to sweat it.

The Orangemen built their lead to 18 during a breakneck first 20 minutes. But things ground to a halt in the second, and it was Boeheim's famous 2-3 zone that closed out the game.

The Jayhawks never really found the outside touch to force the Orangemen to guard them up high. Hinrich shot 6-for-20 3-for-12 from 3-point range. He missed twice with a chance to tie in the closing seconds, including one that went halfway down the net before rattling out.

Inside, Boeheim's 'D' came close to turning Kansas into a one-man show. Collison, the All-American forward, was valiant and brilliant. But in the end, he simply didn't have enough help against the tall and long Syracuse players and that well-coached defense.

And there was a fatal flaw that had nothing to do with Syracuse's defense: The Jayhawks missed an amazing 18 of 30 free throws; Collison went 3-for-10.

"You try to make a free throw," Collison said. "You miss, you make, there's nothing else you can do."

In some ways, bad free-throw shooting can be corrected. Other things just can't be coached. Exhibit A was McNamara, Anthony, Warrick - the whole Syracuse team, really - who played a one-on-one style of offense that looked as if it came straight from the playground.

McNamara was relentless, unabashedly hoisting shots from 23, 24, 25 feet and making almost all of them. By the end of the first half, he was 6-for-8 - his season high - and the Orangemen led 53-42. The 53 were the most points scored by one team in the first half of a title game.

Was McNamara the best player out there?

Just ask any of the three or four players who had the task of guarding Anthony, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, after he took passes at the top of the key. A ball fake here, a dribble between the legs there, a spin or a pull-up 3-pointer - nothing was out of the question with this guy, and very little of it was stoppable.

Before his back started acting up, Anthony look destined to join Dwyane Wade of Marquette as the second player with a triple-double in this year's tournament. As it was, he finished three assists shy.

"We just came into the tournament and proved everybody wrong," Orangemen guard Josh Pace said. "We have the best player in the country."

Even with Anthony slowing down in the end, Kansas couldn't play catchup well enough to tie or take the lead. A great chance came with 14 minutes left when, trailing 61-58, the Jayhawks picked off a bad pass and started rushing downcourt. But Kansas turned it right back over, and Anthony made a 3-pointer to keep the Orange ahead.

Syracuse stretched it to 12 with seven and a half minutes left, and KU could never overcome after that.

"When you're fighting and scrapping, running through a lot of double teams, it does take a lot out of you," Hinrich said.

It was another bitter defeat for Williams, who stayed without the one victory that would have rounded out an otherwise impeccable resume.

His next task is to decide whether he's interested in the opening at North Carolina, his alma mater, or wants to return to Kansas to try to complete his still-unfinished business.

Choked up, as he normally is when the season ends, Williams uncharacteristically used an expletive when asked about the job during a live postgame interview on TV.

"I've got 13 kids in that locker room that I love," Williams said before the interview turned testy.

Boeheim, meanwhile, improved to 1-2 in title games. Nine years after the 1987 loss, Syracuse fell to Kentucky in the final.

Before the game, he insisted he would coach the same in the final as he always does, and by the looks of things he did. He also called "foolishness" the notion that a win in this game would make him a better coach.

That argument, for a night at least, remained open for debate.

"I don't feel any smarter yet," Boeheim deadpanned. "Maybe tomorrow."

By Eddie Pells