First things first: If you haven’t been to the Big East Tournament before, go. Before attending in person today, we’d conflated it with all those half-empty first-round NCAA tournament games, seen that it took place mostly during the middle of weekday afternoons, and figured it was probably a fairly tepid scene but for a few sections of rowdy bussed-in college kids.
We were pretty much exactly wrong: For today’s Syracuse-St. John’s game (and the less-local UConn-Pitt game we arrived to just as Kemba Walker was blowing the roof off the place with a buzzer-beating jumper), the entire arena was packed, with the holiday feel of a day-drinking college spring festival, and we barely saw any college students at all. Rather, the Garden was filled with hyped-up alums high-fiving and ordering a lot of Bud Light. Unaided by piped-in “D! Fense!”-type sound effects, the crowd was lively and loud from start to finish. (Whether those “Let Me Hear You Make Some Noise” clips were ever worthwhile is debatable, but at this point they definitely just trigger the wrong kind of Pavlovian response, reminding you of every sluggish mid-season NBA game and abandoned Shea Stadium upper deck you’ve ever experienced.) Syracuse got a much noisier reception during introductions, but either the Red Storm fans showed up late or the team won over the neutral parties; both sides were getting huge cheers by the half. The whole thing was great. We
did so many keg stands thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere.
The game itself matched the crowd’s energy. Early on that led to some exciting plays but also a ton of turnovers (twenty total in the first half) and fouling (twenty-two total in the first half). The score stayed close; Dwight Hardy’s drives and Justin Brownlee’s strengh inside gave St. John’s the lead to close the first period after Syracuse, fueled by Fab Melo’s enormousness in the paint, made an early run. The Orange got the lead back right away in the second, with guard Brandon Triche hitting four three-pointers in the half’s first ten minutes. Both teams seemed to get more comfortable breaking down the other’s 2-3 zone as the game wore on, cutting down mistakes and moving the ball for (relatively) easy baskets as things went down to the wire.
In the end, it was Syracuse’s size down low that won the day. Starting with eight minutes left, the six-foot-eight C.J. Fair, the six-foot-nine Rick Jackson and the seven-foot Fab Melo scored fifteen straight points. The two tallest St. John’s players are listed at six foot eight, Justin Burrell and Sean Evans; Evans for his part had twelve boards, but neither he nor Burrell were able to keep Jackson and Melo from getting position in the paint at the end of the game. That and solid free-throw shooting sealed the deal for Jim Boeheim’s squad. (It’s also worth noting that St. John’s doesn’t have very good three-point shooters, especially with D.J. Kennedy out of the game, as he was after a first-half leg injury, which makes it tough to come back quickly at the end of games.)
As we write, the Syracuse band is playing the alma mater as their cheerleaders sway and the fans file out. In about an hour the place will start to fill up for Cincinnati-Notre Dame and the whole cycle of excitement starts again. And this is just the quarterfinals! Someone bring us some beer money and a sleeping bag.