PITTSBURGH — Syracuse was missing its starting center. North Carolina-Asheville thought the Orange got help from three men in striped shirts.
With Syracuse facing the kind of NCAA tournament history no team wants to make, the top-seeded Orange rallied for a 72-65 victory Thursday in the second round of the East Regional.
Two calls by the officials had the sellout crowd of 18,927 at Concol Energy Center — except for those wearing orange — booing throughout the final minute but it didn’t matter.
Syracuse made it 109-0 for No. 1 seeds against No. 16s since the NCAA went to a field of 64 in 1985.
“I don’t think luck had anything to do with this game today,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, “and I think the better team won.”
The Orange were staring at NCAA tournament history. A No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed, and they were trailing North Carolina-Asheville with just over 6 minutes to play.
“We gave it everything we had. We battled the best that we could,” Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said. “These guys are great. They deserved a better fate than they had today.”
Syracuse, which won the national championship in 2003, had already made negative history in the tournament, becoming the first No. 2 seed to lose to a 15 when it fell 73-69 to Richmond in 1991.
The Orange managed to avoid adding another black mark by holding Asheville to one field goal over the final minute while they went 6 of 7 from the free throw line.
Syracuse was playing without 7-foot center Fab Melo, who was declared ineligible for academic reasons by the school and will miss the tournament.
“The fact that this game was close had nothing — nothing — to do with the center position,” Boeheim said.
Syracuse (32-2) will play eighth-seeded Kansas State in the third round on Saturday. The Wildcats beat Southern Mississippi 70-64.
The Bulldogs (24-10), who talked Wednesday about pulling off the upset, were led by J.P. Primm’s 18 points.
They led 34-30 at halftime — the third 16 to do that — but the Orange took the lead for good with 6:17 left on a turnaround jumper by reserve James Southerland, who had 15 points and a season-high eight rebounds.
“James has to continue to make the shots and I think he will,” Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine said. “I’m happy for him because he’s a big part of our offense and today he showed it.”
Southerland, who scored 13 points in the second half, had three of the Orange’s five 3-pointers.
“James came in, gave us a huge lift off the bench,” Boeheim said of the 6-foot-8 junior.
The Bulldogs got within three points three times in the final 1:04 but could get no closer as Syracuse made its free throws and the officials made a couple of controversial calls.
The first call that caused the crowd to react was a lane violation with 1:20 left. Jardine missed the front end of a 1-and-1 but Primm was called for passing the head of the key before Jardine let the shot go. Jardine got to shoot the front end again, made it, and made the second for a 64-58 lead.
“They gave me a second chance to make the shot and I made it,” Jardine said. “I got myself into a rhythm. I made every free throw from there on out because I do what I practice and believed in myself at that time and made the shots for us.”
Primm said: “They showed it on the replay, I think the crowd let him know that it wasn’t the right call. ... Like I said, when it gets crunch time like that, like I say, everyone is human.”
With 35 seconds left and the Orange leading 66-63, the ball appeared to go out of bounds off Syracuse’s Brandon Triche but the officials pointed the other way and gave it to the Orange. Jardine made two free throws a second later.
Coordinator of Officiating John Adams said he would have given the ball to UNC Asheville on the inbounds play.
“The out of bounds is not reviewable and it is not a play we would discuss,” official Ed Corbett told a pool reporter. “I’m not going to comment further because it is a judgment call. It was a clear (lane) violation. The player released early, before the ball hit the rim. We’ve since watched the replay 20 times and it was the right call.”
Boeheim had his own take on the play with Triche.
“First of all, all the noise about the ball going out of bounds, I mean, Triche got pushed. That’s why it went out of bounds,” he said. “Maybe they missed the out of bounds, they missed the foul call. Those things equal out.”
Inexplicably the Orange kept shooting 3-pointers and missing. Despite having a huge height advantage — Asheville’s talllest starter was 6-foot-5, bigger only than the Syracuse guards — the Orange kept taking 3s against the Bulldogs’ 2-3 zone, which isn’t as well known as the one Syracuse has played for decades but was just as effective Thursday.
The height advantage didn’t do much for the Orange as far as rebounding went either as they had 33, one more than the Bulldogs. Then again, Syracuse was outrebounded by its opponents for the season.
“We just played a good 2-3 zone and mixed it up a little bit, playing man-to-man on one possession, zone on the other, just enough to try to keep ‘em off balance,” Biedenbach said
Kris Joseph and Dion Waiters both had 12 points for Syracuse, which played its fourth game this season without Melo, the Big East defensive player of the year who missed three games in January over academic issues. The Orange are 3-1 without him.
“We (would) love to have him, but it’s about us playing the game,” Jardine said. “We got a lot of guys that stepped up today.”
Jaron Lane added 16 points and Jeremy Atkinson had 12 for the Bulldogs, whose leading scorer, Matt Dickey, went 1 for 13 from the field, 1 of 9 from 3. Asheville went 9 of 23 from beyond the arc.
“The excitement of the game was crazy. It was March Madness at its finest,” Dickey said. “It was awesome and we’ll cherish this moment and the opportunity that we had but we’ll always look back at this moment and say we should have won or could have won, but that’s not enough.”
Other No. 1s have trailed a 16 at halftime, the last Kansas, which was behind by two points before going on to beat Holy Cross 70-59 in 2002.
There have been two one-point wins by No. 1s over 16s — Georgetown over Princeton and Oklahoma over East Tennessee State, both in 1989. And there was one two-point game — Purdue over Western Carolina in 1996 — and one that went overtime — Michigan State 75-71 over Murray State in 1990.
Boeheim earned his 46th win in the NCAA tournament, breaking a tie with Bob Knight for seventh on the career list.