The color of the college basketball world is now draped in, fittingly enough, orange.
Orange as in the shade of the smoothly granulated ball. Orange as in the blur of the shot clock excreting time away methodically. And orange as the glint of the sun that will shine this morning and every morning after in the hearts of the Syracuse men’s basketball team.
Orange as in Orangemen.
The beaming dreams of Syracuse and Head Coach Jim Boeheim burst to radiant life Monday night in an 81-78 victory over Kansas at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Now the Orangemen are the 2003 NCAA National Champions and the thrill of accomplishment tastes tantalizingly sweet for the ‘Cuse, yet disappointingly tart for the valiant Jayhawks.
The game played out like a fierce tussle on a blacktop with chain-netted rims, just before the sun withered away into dusk. The Orangemen built an 18-point lead, yet Kansas stormed right back to come within 11 at halftime. And then eight, six, five, three and… Jayhawk center Jeff Graves made the first of two free throws to storm back 80-78 with one minute glowering on the game clock.
In the final thrilling minute, Syracuse survived when the best freshman – excuse me, best player – in the country, Carmelo Anthony, clutched Graves’ missed free throw. Kansas senior forward and First Team All-American Nick Collison fouled guard Kueth Duany, officially ending his collegiate career. Collison’s line: 19 points, 21 rebounds and a body and soul left on the floor.
Duany hit one free throw. KU’s other senior, guard Kirk Hinrich, missed an open three at the other end. Spindly Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick snarled in the rebound.
Yet Hakim “Fly Walker” Warrick missed both free throws, giving Kansas a final chance. Warrick saved the game by blocking Michael Lee’s three-pointer into the stands with 1.5 seconds left. One more play. Hinrich curled around a screener and grabbed the ball on the inbounds. His shot whistled away, hitting nothing but air.
The Orangemen’s smothering 2-3 zone defense and ability to hang on won them a national title. Having a slew of undaunted freshmen to counter Kansas’ salty seniors didn’t hurt.
Carmelo Anthony (whose name sounds like a scrumptious delicatessen), the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tourney, finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and a sore back to boot. Gerry McNamara drilled six threes, all in the first half, and showed that he had more range than submarine’s sonar. Warrick, only a sophomore, displayed niftier footwork than a tightrope acrobat.
We can finally admit it: These kids are more than all right. They’re champions.
– Eliav Appelbaum is the Daily Nexus sports editor.