Syracuse Orange Ripe for the Picking on Friday Night
By Mike Vaccaro for the Bona Blog
Thirteen thousand, four-hundred and seventy-nine.
Oh, you know where this is going. By the time the Bonnies take the floor at the Carrier Dome Friday night, it will be 13,479 days since the last time they beat Syracuse. That glorious little aberration took place on Jan. 26, 1981. Earl Belcher – Syracuse’s own – scored 23 points, sinking 13 out of 14 free throws. Norman Clarke had 18. Danny Schayes led the Orange with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Syracuse would actually win the Big East title later that year, eking out a three-overtime thriller over Villanova in the finals, but the league was a year away from an automatic bid to the NCAA so the Orange would have to settle for the NIT runner-up trophy. The Bonnies finished a pedestrian 14-13.
Bona folks are mostly disinclined to like anything about Syracuse, specifically the Orange’s Hall of Fame coach, Jim Boeheim. Back in the day, in fact, the Reilly Center faithful used to give it to Boeheim something fierce. A few years ago, I asked him about those years and he actually smiled broadly.
“It was no fun playing them at all, let alone in Olean,” Boeheim said. “But until the Big East came along, they were about the only real rival we had.”
Here’s the thing, though: he’s being terribly kind saying that. Save for one memorable game in 1977, and another a year later, calling Syracuse-St. Bonaventure a “rivalry” is, to put it mildly, folly. The teams have played 27 times through the years starting with a 29-12 win in Syracuse for the home team on Dec. 15, 1923. Syracuse has won 24 of them, most recently thwarting a Bonnies upset bid two years ago at the Dome, a 79-66 final. Let’s be a little less generous than Boeheim was, OK?
These are rivals the way hammer and nail are rivals.
Boeheim may like to wax nostalgic about this, since he was a young coach in 1977 (when Essie Hollis almost single-handedly destroyed the Orangemen at the RC) and in 1978 (when Delmar Harrod’s buzzer-beater (H/T to Bona87 on the Ole’ Bandwagon for the catch) forged a 70-69 upset in the ECAC that helped propel the Bonnies to their last NCAA Tournament for 22 years). But Boeheim is also the one who announced after a 71-59 Orange win in December of 1984 that he would never again bring his team to the RC. And he hasn’t. And he won’t. Ever again. Under any circumstance.
But he will permit the Bonnies to come to him.
And so there is Friday night, at the Carrier Dome.
There is Friday night, and the Bonnies bringing a 9-2 record to the Dome, and the Orange (coming off a scare to Buffalo) bringing a 10-1 record, and you have to believe, if you think clearly and fairly and rationally, that if the Bonnies are ever going to get a fourth win in this series, it has to be now, with this team, with these seniors, playing as well as they have all year after drubbing a good Northeastern team by 19 points Wednesday night. All of the ingredients are there: the Bonnies know they can play with a Power 5 team, having already knocked off Maryland. SU’s students will be long gone from campus. It’s three days before Christmas, which makes you think the Dome may well be sleepy and vulnerable to be filled with more than the usual quota of road fans.
Now all they have to do is win the game.
It’s amazing, when you think about it, that they’ve gotten here in the shape that they’re in. I’ve followed this program for 32 years now; I’m not sure I’ve ever sensed greater depression than in the days after the opener, that 77-75 loss to Niagara. Yes, there were plenty of ways to try to reason and rationalize what had happened (Jaylen Adams’ absence, it’s a rivalry game, opening-night jitters) but none of them made anyone feel better. And the truth is, just looking at that score can make you nauseous. It’s one thing to hang around anxiously, waiting for the other shoe to drop; what happens when both shoes land with a horrible THUD just 40 minutes into the season?
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
This was the worst of it: five days later, with a gimme (as if, at that moment, any game against any opponent felt like a gimme) against Maryland-Eastern Shore awaiting at the RC, the lights went out. Seriously. The power went out in the RC, and it never came back, and the game was postponed five days, and so it wasn’t enough the Bonnies would stay winless for another few days but then the jokes started flying, on social media, in work places, saloons, everywhere.
Can’t they pay the electric bill up there?
Did the treadmill rats go on strike?
Yeah, that was no fun.
The Maryland game, though, that was fun.
That was what this season was supposed to be about, even if Adams was still on the shelf, even if it seemed like the Terps guarded Matt Mobley with three defenders all night. It was close, it was tense, it was the kind of game that makes you wonder why you possibly care so much, why you ruin yourself with worry … and then Courtney Stockard — Courtney Stockard! Kid waited patiently through two long years as a medical redshirt for this moment! COURTNEY STOCKARD! — drove the ball, scored the ball, gave the Bonnies that 63-61 win, as satisfying a non-conference game as there’s been in years.
And from there, well … it has felt as it’s supposed to feel when you have a team like this, in a year like this, a team around whom so many expectations have been wrapped. There was a close loss to TCU (which still hasn’t lost a game since last March) and then Adams came back and the wins started coming, and there were revelations galore (Iziah Brockington’s poise, LaDarien Griffin’s ups) and there was Mobley, scoreless for the first 39 minutes and 59 ½ seconds of the Vermont game in Rochester before epically draining the game-winning 3, and maybe, just maybe, you could start to sense a little magic around this team (though no amount of sleight-of-hand could make Niagara 77, Bona 75 disappear; believe me, I know, I’ve tried everything, it’s Clorox-proof).
And now there is this.
Now there is Syracuse, Friday night, Carrier Dome, 7 o’clock.
There’s the Orange: picked for the NCAA’s two years ago over Bona, a hard point to argue thanks to that 79-66 loss but an even harder pill to choke down once they actually went and made it to the damned Final Four! There’s the Best Game That Never Was, the one so easily forgotten, that if the Bonnies ever could have survived that forever 85-80, double-overtime epic to Kentucky in the 2000 NCAA, Syracuse would’ve been waiting for them next. (And, damn, THAT’S a game I would’ve liked to have seen, how about you?)
Nobody really knows for sure if beating Syracuse will put the Bonnies in better position come March with the people who decide such things, or if it would officially cancel out the Niagara game, or if it would mean anything at all. If we’ve learned one lesson from the horror of 2015-16, it’s that the old William Goldman line about Hollywood absolutely applies to the NCAA Tournament selection committee: “Nobody knows anything.”
You know what?
Beat Syracuse anyway. Beat the Orange silly. Beat them for all the times these games were over in the layup line. Beat them for the time the NIT could’ve done the Bonnies a solid (in 2002) and forced Syracuse back to the RC and chose tens of thousands of empty Carrier Dome seats instead. Beat them for beating Bona out of Roosevelt Bouie, back in the day. Beat them because of that insidious Orange mascot. Beat them because, hell, Wofford beat North Carolina Wednesday night, and if that can happen of course this can happen.
Beat them because 13,479 days is damn long enough to wait. It’s time. It really is time. Just bloody beat them.
Matt Mobley Photo courtesy of former Bonnie David Andoh. You can visit his website here