On a day when the unexpected happened, the Syracuse basketball team performed as expected. The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in college basketball, Kansas and Kentucky, lost earlier in the day. Even the U.S. four-man bobsled team slid into the upset parade, ending a 60-year drought by winning a gold medal in Vancouver.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim saw his team fall behind 23-14 to the Villanova Wildcats (23-5, 12-4 Big East), and decide to roll his dice, looking to hit the lucky seven. His seven ‘starters,’ that is.
“The first half I thought Kris [Joseph] and Scoop [Jardine] were huge,” Boeheim said. “They got us back into the game. I've said all year long that those two guys are just like starters and they played just like starters.”
On Saturday night, it was the "non-starting starter," sophomore guard Scoop Jardine, who emerged with 12 first-half points and the aggressive attitude that balanced the shaky Syracuse ship.
Down nine points and stricken with the turnover bug (six SU giveaways in five minutes), Jardine woke up the quieting crowd with a 3-pointer at 10:16, and took a defensive rebound the length of the floor for a fast-break layup. Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who feverishly recruited Jardine out of the Philadelphia Catholic League, called timeout as 34,616 fans filled the Dome with the deep baritone of “Scoooooooooooop.”
“He was aggressive. He played with a lot of confidence,” Boeheim said after the game. “I thought he was really looking to score tonight, probably a little bit more than he should be."
Jardine came into the night ranked fifth in the Big East in assists per game (4.6) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3). His play was an integral part in the Orange settling in after early sloppy play -- Syracuse committed just one turnover in the second half.
“I’m happy for Andy Rautins because he just does it all,” said Jardine of his backcourt mate. “On the floor, rebounding, blocking shots--he doing it all. He helped me out a lot.”
Jardine used some of that vigor to ignite a 24-10 run that culminated with a Rick Jackson dunk off a pass from Rautins. Jackson, a high school teammate of Jardine at Neumann-Goretti High School in South Philadelphia, scored a game-high 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Rautins handed out a game-high eight assists and the Orange (27-2, 14-2) finished the night with 21 assists.
The 27 regular season wins breaks the SU school record set in 1990-91.
“Everyone has been talking about this Villanova game for so long,” Jardine said in the postgame locker room. “It feels great to go in there and beat them by almost 20 points. I feel like the happiest man in the world right now.”
The Orange entered the locker room at halftime with a 46-36 lead and emerged for the second half on a mission. Rautins, held to four first-half points, sandwiched a Wes Johnson 3-pointer with a pair of his own triples-- the second gave the Orange a 59-48 lead at 16:00. Syracuse scored 45 points in the last 12:41 of action.
Boeheim could find little wrong with the way his team is playing these days. “If you like basketball, and good basketball, this is a great team to watch play," he said. "It’s a great team to coach. We’ll see how we go from here.”
“That's the best performance I've seen all year," Wright said afterward. "I think we played the best team in the country, no offense to Kansas or Kentucky.”
Jardine kept the Orange fans dancing and waving (free orange towels, that is), scoring a pair of fast-break layups while finding senior center Arinze Onuaku for a couple of traditional three-point plays. Onuaku, a 41-percent career free throw shooter, delighted the crowd by consistently converting from the charity stripe.
Things in the Dome reached such a crazed pitch that the crowd even gave former Indiana coach Bob Knight an ovation. Knight, doing color commentary for the ESPN broadcast, famously coached the Hoosiers to a national championship victory over Syracuse in 1987.
"Our fans were great,” Boeheim said after the game. “It's unbelievable to come in here and walk around the Carrier Dome and see so many people there with towels. Our fans have always supported us."
Junior forward Wes Johnson finished with a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) while Rautins added 12 points, a game-high eight assists and three steals. Jardine and Kris Joseph finished with 16 points apiece.
"That's the way we want it,” said Boeheim. “We try to get a balance.”
Villanova star guard Scottie Reynolds led his squad with 16 points and Corey Fisher added 14 points, six assists and five rebounds.
The two teams are likely to see each other again at the upcoming Big East Tournament Championship, taking place in Madison Square Garden from March 9 to March 13.