There was no magic left in the vaunted 2-3 zone. Not nearly enough left in Buddy Boeheim’s tired legs.
Without either at its best, Syracuse didn’t have much of a chance — not against Houston’s vice-grip defense and relentless bevy of active athletic guards and forwards. The 11th-seeded Orange’s stunning run came to a sudden halt Saturday night in the Sweet 16, a 62-46 loser to the second-seeded Cougars at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Houston (27-3) will meet No. 12 Oregon State, a 65-58 winner over eight-seeded Loyola Chicago, in the Midwest Region final Monday night. The Cougars last reached the Elite Eight in 1984, in the days of Phi Slama Jama.
Hounded by AAC Defensive Player of the Year DeJon Jarreau, Boeheim scored just 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting, after scoring 55 points in his first two tournament games. He wasn’t alone. As a team, the Orange (18-10) shot 28 percent from the field and made just 5-of-22 3-pointers in scoring a season-low 46 points. Houston found plenty of holes in the 2-3 zone that created so many problems for No. 6 San Diego State and No. 3 West Virginia, outscoring Syracuse, 30-16, in the paint.
Jarreau was all over the court, notching nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and Quentin Grimes had 14 points. Joseph Girardi III scored 12 for Syracuse.
Houston quickly equaled its largest lead of 12 early in the second half. It was picking apart the Syracuse zone, getting whatever shot it wanted. the Orange responded with a 10-2 run to draw within four, as Boeheim got going, scoring on back-to-back possessions, and Kadary Richmond sank a 3-pointer from the left corner.
But the momentum would be short-lived. Houston methodically pushed the margin back to nine by the under-8 timeout, and soon the lead was back in double figures. There was no drama in the final minutes, not like in the Cougars’ previous win over Rutgers when it had to rally to advance.
Houston owned the start of the first half and the end of it. It scored 17 of the game’s first 22 points and closed on a 10-0 run, taking a 30-20 lead at the break. In between, Syracuse was able to hold its own, mostly because of reserve forwards Jesse Edwards.
With the lanky 6-foot-11 sophomore in the middle of the 2-3 zone, Houston found trouble. After three Buddy Boeheim free throws, Syracuse got even at 20 with 4:57 left in the opening stanza.
It wouldn’t score again before intermission, finding itself in a hole yet again. A concern coming in for the Orange was the defensive glass. But it allowed Houston just six offensive rebounds and two second-chance points over the first 20 minutes. The bigger problem was Syracuse’s offense, which struggled mightily against the Cougars’ pressure man-to-man defense.
It shot just 25 percent from the field and was 1-of-10 from 3-point range after hitting 29 from distance in its first two tournament games. Boeheim was short on most of his jumpers, a sign of fatigue. Marcus Sasser scored 10 points to lead Houston, sinking a pair of 3-pointers, but Jarreau was the best player on the floor, notching eight rebounds, six assists and elite-level defense on Boeheim.
The second half was more of the same for Syracuse. Too much Jarreau. Too much Houston defense. And not nearly enough Boeheim.