BUFFALO — Sometimes basketball is a simple game. Make shots, you win. Miss them, you lose.
Maybe it isn't really as simple as that, but it sure seemed that way Saturday when Syracuse's Tyler Ennis launched a three as the clock neared zero. If it goes in, the Orange win. If not, they lose. It did not go in, just like the other nine three-pointers the Orange hoisted Saturday — and upstart Dayton won 55-53.
The Flyers are off to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years. They survived a last-second shot that could have beaten them against Ohio State on Thursday, too. And they said they danced in a delirious, high-stepping celebration when they got back to their locker room Saturday.
"And we're going to dance again when all you guys leave," guard Jordan Sibert said with a giant grin.
BOX SCORE: Dayton 55, Syracuse 53
MARCH MADNESS: NCAA tournament bracket
That fulfills the common metaphors of the tournament: The Big Dance. Cinderella at the ball. And, oh yes, you know these Flyers will be called Cinderella. Double-digit seeds always are.
Dayton plays the winner of Kansas-Stanford in the next round. The Flyers have knocked off brand-name schools from the Big Ten and the ACC. They'll face another brand name next either way, from the Big 12 or the Pac-12.
"That's OK," center Matt Kavanaugh, speaking of power conferences generally. "They put on basketball shoes just like us."
Insert your glass slipper joke here.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim answered questions with a glum look of resignation. He was asked if he thought Enis' three was going down. Weren't the Orange due after 0-for-9?
"There's a lot guys in Vegas that think that, too," Boeheim said. "They go home with nothing."
OFF NIGHT: Shooting slump costs the Orange
The same could be said for the Orange, who started the year 25-0 and finished 3-6 down the stretch, including a win against Western Michigan on Thursday. The Orange shot well that day. Maybe they were out of their shooting slump. Maybe they'd served notice they were back in the national title hunt. Turned out not.
"That was a good shot," Boeheim said of the last one. "I have no problem with that shot. Some of his other jump shots were not good decisions."
One in particular rankled the coach. Ennis fired a jumper from just above the foul line with eight seconds left. Like so many others, it drew iron. Boeheim said that play was drawn up for Ennis to take it to the basket. When the shots are not falling, Boeheim said, that's what you do.
"I don't know why he settled for the jump shot," Boeheim said. "There was plenty of time. He had space. I don't know why. The last shot was a great shot. That was the right play, a chance to win the game."
In the next game, Connecticut's Shabazz Napier didn't miss much — 9-of-13 from the field — except a nerve-wracking 37 seconds of playing time with just over four minutes left when he took an inadvertent kick to the right shin. UConn beat its old Big East buddy Villanova 77-65. And with that, the No. 2 seed in Buffalo was gone, just like the 3-seed in the game before it.
Napier limped off the court and sat on the bench with his head in his hands as the trainer worked him. He'd say later he was in excruciating pain. An entire state held its collective breath. But his time on the bench straddled two time outs so he was back after missing little more than a half-minute. And about a minute later he drove the lane and hit a ridiculous bank shot. That put UConn up nine and that was pretty much it.
Napier finished with 25 points, including four threes in eight attempts. Syracuse would have loved those odds when its game-ending three pointer was in the air.
The Flyers watched it fly, so much riding on an orange orb rotating toward the basket. "I thought it was in from my angle," Sibert said.
Dayton coach Archie Miller said he thought it was "definitely going in. That thing was online, and he went for the win."
Miller thought of a game-winner Ennis made against Pittsburgh in February, when everything was beer and skittles for the undefeated Orange.
"The thing that went through my head was the Pitt game," Miller said. "I saw that highlight on SportsCenter 7,000 times when he banged the three on Pitt."
That's what it's like when a potential game-winner is in the air. It feels like slow-motion and somehow enough time for thoughts like that. The entire crowd roared as Ennis came up court with the game in his hands. Double-digit seeds usually gain support on their way to upsets. It was not like that at all in Buffalo. The orange-clad, pro-Syracuse crowd seemed ready to explode. Surely this shot was in. The noise reached a crescendo.
And then, iron. The crowd gasped and grew silent. And then the smaller Dayton contingent made a joyful noise all of its own.
"Fortunately tonight, they didn't hit some shots that they probably normally hit," Miller said. "The defense was great, but you also could play them 10 times, and I don't think that some of those shots would be missed. So a little bit of luck is on your head. And you need that, I think, obviously, in this tournament. You've got to be fortunate."
If Syracuse was the gang that couldn't shoot straight — 39% for the game — the Flyers at 41% weren't all that much better. Except where they were: Seven of 16 from three-point range. It was the difference.
And so the high-fliers from Dayton are off to Memphis. Forget glass slippers. Think sensible shoes. Blue suede, anyone?
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