NEW YORK (AP) — Syracuse is back in the Big East tournament semifinals. The players who came up big for the Orange in the quarterfinals don’t have any experience in those kind of games.
Sophomore guard Brandon Triche had a season-high 22 points and freshman center Fab Melo scored a career-high 12, including two layups in the final 2 minutes, and No. 11 Syracuse beat No. 17 St. John’s 79-73 on Thursday.
The fourth-seeded Orange (26-6) will meet ninth-seeded and 21st-ranked Connecticut (24-9) in the semifinals Friday night. The Huskies beat top-seeded Pittsburgh 76-74 on Kemba Walker’s buzzer-beating jumper Thursday.
The last time Syracuse and Connecticut met in the Big East tournament it was the Orange’s epic 127-117, six-overtime win in the quarterfinals in 2009. Last season, it was one and done for the Orange, who are expected to be one of the Big East’s 11 schools in the NCAA’s field of 68.
“Any team, you look around the country, they’re all good teams,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Our league, we have the most this year, but they’re all good teams.”
Melo, a 7-foot native of Brazil who has been inconsistent in his rookie season, gave the Orange the lead for good at 70-68 with a layup off an inbounds pass with 2 minutes left.
He added another layup on a bounce pass from Triche that made it 74-70 with 32 seconds left.
“He has had good practices and he did play well at DePaul,” Boeheim said, referring to Melo’s previous career high, 10 points against the Blue Demons. “I think I played him against Georgetown and he made a couple big plays. … Having the 10 days of practice we had, I think those practices were huge for him. He’s really worked hard in practice. He made some really huge plays out there.”
Melo’s layup with 2 minutes left came on a designed out-of-bounds play by Boeheim. The second late layup came on a nice bounce pass from Triche down low.
“I get on him a lot because he doesn’t try using his body and he’s really big, but he used his body,” Triche said. “I passed it to his off hand and he was able to make the play.”
Dwight Hardy had 22 points for the Red Storm (21-11), who advanced to the quarterfinals with a controversial second-round win over Rutgers.
After their 65-63 victory Wednesday, the conference admitted the officials missed two calls in the final seconds that should have gone against St. John’s and turned the ball over to the Scarlet Knights.
No controversy this time as Syracuse closed the game by going 5 of 6 from the free throw line over the final 26 seconds.
“Our team has a maturity about them that has allowed us all year to persevere, and persevere through tough stretches and handle a big win and a tough loss with the same approach,” first-year St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “Just to come back and continue to work and try to elevate our level of play so we can reach our goals and aspirations, and that’s to play in the NCAA tournament, that’s what I focused on in the postgame talk.”
St. John’s, which entered with an 8-1 record at Madison Square Garden this season (the only loss to Syracuse), stayed close in the second half despite playing without versatile senior guard D.J. Kennedy, who injured his right knee 5 1/2 minutes into the game and didn’t return.
Lavin said he hadn’t talked to the doctors yet but he called it a “serious knee injury.”
That means Kennedy, one of 10 seniors on the roster who treated St. John’s fans to the program’s best season in almost a decade, might not be available for the Red Storm’s first NCAA tournament game since 2002.
“It won’t feel the same because we lost one of our brothers if he can’t play,” said Sean Evans, who said he and Kennedy are especially close off the court. “It’s going to be hurtful but it will also be fuel to the fire as we step up and play for D.J. and the rest of my teammates.”
Kennedy, the Red Storm’s third-leading scorer (10.7) and leading rebounder (5.7), went down to the court while going after an offensive rebound. He immediately called for the trainer and was helped off the floor by two teammates, keeping his right leg off the ground.
Syracuse, which was given a double-bye into the quarterfinals as one of the top four seeds, looked a little rusty at the start.
The Orange shot 37 percent from the field (10 of 27), including 3 of 10 from 3-point range, as the Red Storm opened a 37-32 halftime lead.
“I’ve said for two years now, when you sit around till Thursday it’s not good. I think it’s difficult for the top seeds to do that,” Boeheim said on the day Pittsburgh dropped to 0-3 with the double-bye. “I’m glad we won so people don’t think I’m sitting around crying, but I don’t think it’s a good way to do it.”
Triche solved the long-range shooting problems by himself, hitting the Orange’s first three 3-point attempts and they went on to shoot 50 percent in the second half (16 of 32), going 4 of 9 from beyond the arc.
“Brandon got us going,” Boeheim said, “and at the end, Rickie (Jackson) and Fab made some great plays when we were one down. … Fab made two big plays.”
Justin Burrell made two free throws with 4:05 left to give St. John’s its final lead and the game’s fifth of six lead changes in the final 8:37.
Jackson, the conference’s defensive player of the year, had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Orange, who have won six straight games and are in the semifinals for the 22nd time.
Justin Brownlee, the player who walked and stepped out of bounds in the final seconds on Wednesday, had 15 points and seven rebounds for St. John’s, which was trying to get to the semifinals for the first time since 2000.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)