Fifth-year seniors Arinze Onuaku and Andy Rautins stepped onto the Carrier Dome floor for the last time of their college careers, yet the night was as much about firsts as finales.
Onuaku and Rautins strutted onto Jim Boeheim Court for the first time as members of the number one team in the country. And it was their first time walking off as outright Big East regular season champions.
Onuaku posted a season-high 21 points and eight boards while Rautins poured in 14 with seven dimes as the Orange routed St. John’s 85-66 to capture the Big East regular season title. No. 1 Syracuse (28-2, 15-2 Big East) will be the top seed in next week’s Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Even notoriously guarded Jim Boeheim was impressed.
“To win this league outright is just a tremendous accomplishment for these kids,” said the Syracuse coach. “They played like champions all year long.”
The Orange played its first game as the No. 1-ranked team in the nation since 1990. Unranked to open the season and picked to finish sixth in the Big East by the coaches, Syracuse silenced skeptics who thought the losses of Johnny Flynn, Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf would be too much to overcome.
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re picked,” said Boeheim. “To be able to win this league is obviously very difficult and to win it with a game to go is even better.”
Five Orange players finished with double figures on a night devoted to just two. Wesley Johnson and Kris Joseph each put in 13 and Scoop Jardine added 10 off the bench.
Rautins scored 11 of Syracuse’s first 31 points and nailed three shots from behind the arc to open up an 11-point lead SU would never surrender. It was an early death blow delivered by a player who has become accustomed to putting teams away on his own. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coach.
“I think you could make a very strong case that Andy’s the most valuable player in the league,” said Boeheim of Rautins. “Wes was carrying us for a long time, but after he got hurt, Andy’s been there hitting the big shots.”
But as has been the case all year for Syracuse, the home finale was not about one player. At halftime, Rautins passed the torch to fellow senior Onuaku for his capstone.
Onuaku led all second half scorers with 15 points and dazzled the 26,081 orange-clad fans with thunderous dunks, seldom showcased ball-handling, gesticulations toward his family in attendance and even a successful free throw.
“It was special playing with my family here for the first time to see me play and our last time here on this court,” said a nostalgic Onuaku. “I didn’t get choked up. I thought I would. But I saw Andy shed a tear, so I had to hold him.”
SU pulled away from the Red Storm in the second half. By the ten minute mark, a Big East battle had transformed into pomp and circumstance.
With 8:10 remaining, Rautins shoveled off a jazzy underhand pass to Onuaku. The senior big man received the pass, went up strong and converted on a two-handed flush. Count the bucket, plus a foul. The seniors connected for the final time in theatrical style.
With 2:47 to play and the Orange leading 80-69, Onuaku left to an upsurging ovation. He gestured with two outstretched arms his appreciation to the standing crowd and hugged teammates and coaches on his way to the bench.
“When you come to college you never think you’re going to be a senior,” he said.
Then it was Rautins’ turn.
Chants of “Andy Rautins” gained steam and summoned Rautins’ replacement from the bench. He departed at the 1:21 mark to the loudest ovation of the night—noise that couldn’t shield his struggles to hold back tears.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Rautins said. “I have a deep respect for this place. My time here has been great.”
Standout junior Wesley Johnson expects to play Saturday at Louisville where the Orange will close out its season and seek to wrap up an undefeated record on the road. Johnson also plans to experience Senior Night for himself next year.
“[Tonight] wasn’t my last game here,” Johnson said with a wide smile. “I want to be back.”
Syracuse basketball player Wes Johnson fights for a rebound with St. John's Justin Burrell. (PHOTO: Andrew Burton)