- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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BOSTON – The T-shirts were only gifts from Nike, concocted by some faceless marketing whiz, not crafted by clever seniors looking to send a message.
Still, if Syracuse players got together to try to formulate a motto for their team and for their season, they couldn’t have come up with better than the three words emblazoning their Ts:
By Any Means.
Syracuse has won 34 games this year, nail-biters and blowouts, won with defense and won with offense, with their starting center and without him.
The Orange just win, amazing even their seen-it-all coach with their pluck and knack for pulling victory from the jaws of defeat.
“If I wasn’t the coach, I’d be sitting there thinking, how are they going to win that game? They can’t win that one,’’ Jim Boeheim said last week. “And then they do.’’
And really that’s all that matters at this time of year. From October until February, a team has to justify its worth, prove it deserves a bid, prove it merits a high seed.
Now, though, the means needn’t justify the end. Pretty or ugly, easy or hard, it makes no never mind.
Syracuse opted for a plateful of the last Thursday night, surviving a Wisconsin shooting clinic that was equal parts awe-inspiring, amazing or terrifying, depending on your team color choice, to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since its national title run in 2003, 64-63.
“Yeah, by any means, that’s perfect for us, that’s how we played today, how we’ve played all season,’’ sophomore guard Dion Waiters said. “By any means. It fits.’’
The means in this matchup came in the form of Fair and prayer. That would be C.J. Fair, who was so ineffective in Pittsburgh that reporters were probing for health issues or injury to explain his 1-of-10 shooting in the first two rounds of the tournament, and who out of nowhere shot 7 of 9 to finish with 15 points and seven rebounds on Thursday.
As for the prayer, that came from Waiters, who looked for a little divine intervention as Wisconsin, which shot a blistering 14 of 27 from the arc, had the ball, 15 seconds and a chance to win the game.
“I just kept saying, ‘Please don’t make it, please don’t make it, please God, let him miss,’’ Waiters said.
“That clock just had to end,’’ Orange junior Brandon Triche said.
When it did, Taylor and his Wisconsin teammates lay prone on the floor. There is one way to beat a zone and UW executed it to near perfection, at one point draining six 3s in succession to go from down seven points to up by three.
But when the Badgers needed those shots, they couldn’t come up with them, missing their final five, including Taylor’s heave.
The loss once more denies Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan a chance to get out of the regional semifinal. The man who racked up Division III titles like a tie collection is now 1-4 in the Sweet 16.
“It was on the line, and I felt like I got my legs into it,’’ said Taylor, who finished with 17 points. “I knew it was a deep 3 but it felt good and then to see it kind of come up short was kind of heartbreaking.’’
One team’s heartache …
“This is one of the best games I’ve been involved in in a long time,’’ Boeheim said. “I think the best game anyone played against us and didn’t beat us.’’
Truth be told, this game was a microcosm of that entire season -- an unexpected star, timely defense and an answered prayer has been both the Orange’s means and recipe all year.
Blessed with a roster deep enough to field a second team, Boeheim has the luxury of finding the hot hand and then feeding it well. In three NCAA tournament games, three different players have led the Orange in scoring.
Fair hadn’t been the guy in a while, though. He’s been on this side of terrible since the postseason began, 2-of-17 from the beginning of the Big East tournament through the third-round victory over Kansas State. He swears he never lost confidence because Boeheim never gave up on him -- Fair retained his starting position and kept playing minutes.
On Tuesday, he said he had a feeling -- not quite a premonition -- that he would play well against the Badgers. And then he promptly turned the ball over on his first touch and missed two free throws a few minutes later.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, this cannot happen,’ ’’ Fair said.
But with five minutes left until the halftime break, Waiters found Fair in transition and the sophomore slammed home the dunk, igniting the partisan Syracuse crowd and his own offensive game.
He’d tack on four more points in quick succession before intermission and keep rolling in the second.
“These were the same shots I was taking last week,’’ he said. “This time they were just going in.’’
Of course, it seemed like most everything was going in during this game. It was a mathematical misnomer, with Wisconsin shooting better from outside the arc than inside of it and Syracuse hitting nine fewer 3s.
Which is why it makes only perfect sense that defense sealed the victory.
After watching the Badgers hedge toward Loyola Marymount’s seemingly untouchable record of 21 made 3s in 1990, Syracuse extended its zone a good two steps beyond the line.
Those extra inches made all the difference, pushing Taylor just enough out of his comfort zone to make that last shot difficult, it not downright impossible.
“We wanted to get a stop,’’ said Scoop Jardine, who with Waiters crowded Taylor on his final shot. “We knew it was going to be something with Jordan trying to penetrate or kick out to one of his shooters. We’ve been in that situation before throughout the year. … We believed in our defense. We didn’t panic, we stayed with them and we believed in it and got the stop to win the game.’’
By any means.