Ron Cook: Syracuse makes one final stand at Big East Conference tournament

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NEW YORK -- The final seconds ticked toward 0.0. More than 20,000 people were on their feet at Madison Square Garden Friday night, roaring so loudly that you couldn't hear the person next to you. Another fabulous Syracuse-Georgetown game -- the last one in a long line -- was headed toward a frenetic finish.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was asked afterward if he allowed himself just a second or two to take in one of the great moments and great scenes in all of sports.

There is nothing quite like the Friday night semifinal games in the Big East Conference tournament.

"I'm busy in the final minutes," Boeheim deadpanned.

It was a flip answer, but Boeheim's moist eyes gave him away.

No one is taking the end of the Big East as we know it and its incredible tournament harder.

"This was important, us getting to the championship game in the final Big East tournament," Boeheim said after Syracuse survived Georgetown, 58-55, in overtime.

It will play Louisville tonight for the championship.

"It's sad for me because I was there at the start [in 1979] when they put the league together," Boeheim said. "[Big East founder] Dave Gavitt dragged us all in. He said it would work. We all said it wouldn't. Of course, Dave was right. He knew. People said he didn't know, but he knew. He was so much smarter than the rest of us."

Syracuse will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season with Pitt and Notre Dame. Louisville will join in 2014-15.

"We had nothing to do with it," Boeheim said. "It's all about football."

That blasted football, Boeheim seemed to want to say.

"If it wasn't for football ... if we had the nine schools that we had in the beginning and never changed, we would have all the great players in the Northeast," Boeheim said. "It would have been ridiculous."

The Big East has been wonderful as it is, growing to 10 teams in 1991, 13 in 1995, 14 in 2000 and, finally, 16 in 2005. Pitt and Connecticut became a terrific rivalry. Syracuse and Connecticut was huge. But there was nothing quite like Syracuse-Georgetown.

It was hard not to think about the legendary battles between the two teams when Boeheim embraced former Georgetown Hall of Fame coach John Thompson after going through the postgame handshake line. One or the other won eight of the first 10 Big East tournament titles. Thompson's son, John Thompson III, is Georgetown's coach now.

It turns out Boeheim and the original Thompson still are competing. Boeheim made it clear he didn't like a sarcastic remark Thompson made after Georgetown blasted Syracuse, 61-39, March 9 in Washington, holding Syracuse to its fewest points in 51 years. Georgetown also won at Syracuse, 57-46, Feb. 23.

"Kiss Syracuse goodbye!" the older Thompson interrupted his son's postgame news conference, much to Thompson III's dismay.

"I think Johnny actually told him, 'Easy ... we have to play these guys again,' " Boeheim said.

And the lesson learned?

"It's hard to win three," Boeheim said.

Even for a Georgetown team that was playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and had gone 15-2 since Pitt somehow beat it by 28 points Jan. 8 in Washington.

Just as it did against Pitt Thursday, Syracuse built a big first-half lead and held on. James Southerland, who buried Pitt by making all six of his 3-point shots in a 62-59 win, made just 4 of 10 against Georgetown but continued his assault on the Big East record book. He has made 16 3-point shots in the tournament with the game tonight yet to play.

Can you say Kemba Walker-like?

"We didn't score a lot, but we scored enough," Boeheim said.

Syracuse's C.J. Fair, who was shut down all game by Georgetown's Otto Porter, finally broke through for a monster dunk that gave Syracuse a 57-53 lead with 2:01 left in overtime. Fair made just 3 of his 16 shots, although Boeheim was in the mood to give credit to Porter, the Big East player of the year. Porter scored 33 points in the win against Syracuse at Georgetown.

"I think he's the best all-around player I've seen in this league," Boeheim said, prompting his postgame audience to stir.

Didn't Boeheim see Patrick Ewing? Chris Mullin? His own Carmelo Anthony?

"I'm not saying he's necessarily the best player," Boeheim said of Porter. "He's just an all-around guy who does everything. I don't see any weaknesses in his game as a perimeter player. He's a great passer. Obviously, he can shoot. He's a great defender. I'd pick him first in the [NBA] draft because he's such a great defender. I thinking he's going to be a great NBA player."

Porter is just a sophomore.

"If we were still in the league, I'd be saying all that to get him out," Boeheim said before dropping his voice almost to a whisper.

"But we're not."

The eyes moistened again.

Don't be surprised if Boeheim is a puddle tonight -- win or lose -- when he walks out of the Garden for the final time as a member of the Big East.

His Big East will be dead.

Long live the Big East.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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