The pressure of winning an NCAA Tournament game can have a dramatic effect on college-aged players — regardless of talent level. Throw in a press defense, and those faults become more readily exposed. There were no two better examples of that theory than in this year’s edition of March Madness.
Not many believed Syracuse would make the 68-team field, much less be in the Final Four in Houston. The Orange lost five of their last six games before getting a No. 10 seed in the Midwest region. Then Jim Boeheim’s team took care of Dayton, then Middle Tennessee State, and needed a late rally to get by Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
But the challenge in the Elite Eight was a daunting one. The Virginia Cavaliers were the top seed in the region and had defeated the Orange twice in Atlantic Coast Conference play. It appeared UVA still had Syracuse’s number on Sunday, as the Cavs held a 35-21 lead at halftime.
The deficit for the ‘Cuse would grow two points larger, and the chances for victory grew longer.
With nothing more to lose, Boeheim went for a radical change. A team noted for its 2-3 zone defense switched to a full-court press.
“We had prepared them that we're going to press because we weren't going to cut a 15-point lead against Virginia down by playing half-court,” Boeheim said in the postgame press conference. “The best we could hope for is lose the game by seven, six or seven, if we play well. … But you have to take your chance.”
The defensive alteration by Syracuse completely threw Virginia off its game. Instead of remaining methodical, the Cavaliers tried to speed up their offense as a way of trying to combat the press. The result was several mistakes that led to Orange baskets.
All of that snowballed into a 25-4 Syracuse run — including 15 consecutive points.
“It was in our grasp, but credit goes to Syracuse for some of the plays they made,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.“I think some of our points off turnovers probably cost us. We didn't convert on some things, had some errors, but played well enough in stretches.”
In the end, the Orange came away with a 68-62 win to continue their improbable tournament journey.
Syracuse’s comeback from 16 down in the second half was tremendous. But it was nothing compared to the remarkable late-game reversal of fortune for Texas A&M against Northern Iowa in the second round.
The third-seeded Aggies were in dire straits — hopelessly down 12 with 44 seconds left in regulation.
“We knew it was kind of impossible, man, but we just said that we were going to fight until the end," senior guard Danuel House said.
Aggressively, if not hopelessly, A&M — like most other teams would in this situation — went to a full-court press with the hopes of a miracle.
For most teams, it only works to a slight degree — maybe a steal here or there.
Well, the Aggies were fortunate enough to induce a bushel of mistakes. In those 44 seconds, Northern Iowa — further hampered by being without its primary inbounder, Matt Bohannon — turned the ball over four times. Texas A&M pounced on those miscues and proceeded to go on an improbable 14-2 run to send the game into overtime tied at 71.
“Our defensive pressure, which we don't do a whole lot of, we went small,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said following the game. “I mean, our guys just did a heck of a job turning our defense into offense…It's just an amazing comeback. I mean, that's all. There is not a whole lot to say.”
Call it a UNI collapse or call it a Texas A&M comeback. But there’s no arguing that the Aggie press swung the momentum and led to the eventual victory in double overtime.
Both Syracuse and Texas A&M proved that radical changes in defensive scheme — no matter how late — can alter the outcome of a game … and lead to positive results.