NEW ORLEANS — The Syracuse Orangemen were playground players early, a bundle of nerves late. They juked, jammed and barely held on for a victory that gave coach Jim Boeheim his long-awaited championship.
Freshman Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara did the scoring and Hakim Warrick came up with a huge block at the end Monday night to lift the Orange to a thrilling 81-78 victory over Kansas.
Warrick, who missed two free throws that would have sealed the game with 13.5 seconds left, made up for it by coming from nowhere to swat a 3-point attempt by Michael Lee that would have tied it.
Kirk Hinrich, cold all night, shot an airball at the buzzer and the Orangemen (30-5) ran to the floor to celebrate their first-ever title. Boeheim threw his arms in the air and ran to shake hands with Roy Williams, deprived once again of the championship.
Anthony showed he is certainly ready for the NBA if he chooses, fighting off a bad back to finish with 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. McNamara hit six 3-pointers in the first half to finish with 18 points.
In a marquee coaching matchup between Boeheim and Williams, a pair of brilliant tacticians who had never won it all, it was Boeheim who finally broke through, after 27 years coaching at his alma mater.
Sixteen years ago, Syracuse lost by one to Indiana on Keith Smart’s game-winner with 4 seconds left on the same Superdome floor. Boeheim said he wanted to get the last 4 seconds right this time, and he did just barely.
“I think this building kind of owed us one,” he said.
In the first half, it didn’t look as if he’d have to sweat it.
The Orangemen built their lead to 18 during a breakneck first half. But things ground to a halt in the second, and it was Boeheim’s famous 2-3 zone that closed out the game.
When it was over, bad free-throw shooting killed the Jayhawks (30-8). They missed an amazing 18 of 30. They also never really found the outside touch to force the Orangemen to guard them up high. Hinrich shot 6-for-20 — 3-for-12 from 3-point range, and missed twice with a chance to tie in the closing seconds.
Inside, Boeheim’s ‘D’ came close to turning Kansas into a one-man show. All-American forward Nick Collison was valiant — he finished with 19 points and 21 rebounds.
But in the end, he simply didn’t have enough help against the tall and long Syracuse players and that well-coached defense.
Of course, there are some things you simply can’t coach, and McNamara, Anthony, Warrick — the whole team, really — played a one-on-one style of offense in the first half that looked as if it came straight from the playground.