WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jim Boeheim’s long and athletic 2-3 zone has Syracuse back in the Final Four.
And in their last year in the Big East, the Orange cut down the nets on the home floor of their most bitter rival.
Michael Carter-Williams filled the stat sheet with 12 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in Syracuse’s 55-39 win over Marquette in the East Regional final at the Verizon Center.
It’s the Orange’s first trip to the Final Four since 2003, when the Carmelo Anthony-led squad won the national championship. The 68-year-old Boeheim has led Syracuse to four Final Fours, all in different decades — 1987, 1996, 2003 and 2013.
The 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams, who defends at the top of the zone and turned the ball over just once Saturday, was named the regional’s top player.
Syracuse will face the winner of the South Regional final between Michigan and Florida in the Final Four next Saturday.
It was a matchup between schools from the soon-to-be-radically-different Big East. Syracuse (30-9) will move to the ACC next season, while Marquette (26-9) is one of the “Catholic 7” schools that is leaving the conference and taking the Big East name with them.
“We will miss not having them in our league,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams said. “I think that the institution and the program that he has created is comparable to any in the country.”
The vaunted 2-3 zone has been unsolvable thus far in the NCAA Tournament, not even by a Golden Eagles team that beat Syracuse a little over a month ago.
That loss to Marquette was during a 1-4 stretch to close the regular season, but this isn’t the same Orange team.
It’s not the same Orange defense.
Syracuse built momentum in the Big East Tournament. The Orange defeated Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Georgetown before blowing a 16-point second-half lead against Louisville in the title game.
In the NCAA Tournament, fourth-seeded Syracuse held Montana to 20.4 percent (11-of-54) from the field in the second round, California to 39.3 percent (22- of-56) in the third round, Indiana to 33.3 percent (16-of-48) in the Sweet 16 and the Golden Eagles to a woeful 22.6 percent (12-of-53) Saturday.
“It’s been a great transformation,” Boeheim said. “Our defense … has been tremendous in this tournament.”
The Orange have held nine teams below 20 percent from beyond the arc on the season, including all four of their games during the NCAA Tournament.
Marquette was just 3-of-25 from 3-point range.
James Southerland led all scorers with 16 points, while C.J. Fair added 13 points for Syracuse, which had a 17-0 advantage in points off turnovers.
“A tremendous, tremendous defensive effort,” Boeheim said.
Marquette’s lowest point total of the season prior to Saturday was 47, but the Golden Eagles struggled to even get a shot off at times against the zone.
“They beat us from start to finish. We collectively tried everything we knew to try,” Williams said. “It is the zone, and it is the players in the zone.”
Vander Blue, who came in averaging 19.7 points over three games during the NCAA Tournament, led the Golden Eagles in scoring with 14 points, but was just 3-of-15 from the field.
Davante Gardner added 14 points for third-seeded Marquette, which last went to the Final Four in 2003 when it was led by Dwyane Wade.
Syracuse stormed out of the gate and jumped out to a 19-7 lead before the 290- pound reserve Gardner, who had a career-high 26 points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting in the win over the Orange in February, led the way.
Marquette began to play through Gardner in the high post and he had seven points during an 11-2 Golden Eagles surge to get them within 21-18. But Southerland hit a triple to stop the burst and the Orange headed into the break with a 24-18 cushion.
Gardner was 4-of-5 in the opening 20 minutes, while the rest of his teammates combined to go 3-of-21.
The Golden Eagles hung around during the first eight-plus minutes of the second half before Syracuse seized control.
Fair made a layup, Southerland recorded a three-point play and Carter-Williams hit a jumper during a quick 7-0 Orange spurt that helped them build a 37-25 margin with 10:56 to play.
A Blue trey at the other end got the Golden Eagles within nine, but they never cut the deficit below that the rest of the way.
“They cover ground really good,” Blue said of the zone. “You’ve got to get the ball in the middle, you’ve got to play inside out, you’ve got to get to the free-throw line and wear them down with the 3-pointer when you can.”