Make no mistake, this past Saturday's Syracuse vs. Duke game featured both an amazing atmosphere and an incredible finish down the stretch. It was the perfect welcoming for both Orange and Blue Devils fans, who will get to know each other very well in the coming years. But when Jim Boeheim said "I don't think I've been involved in a better game in here that I can remember", well, I couldn't disagree more.
You see, that spot is reserved for SU's matchup with Pitt back on February 1st, 2003. Here are four solid reasons why:
1. There was a comeback
This past Saturday, Syracuse and Duke were never separated by more than six points the entire game. Sure, Rasheed Sulaimon hit a ridiculous 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, but it's not as if Duke came storming back down the stretch. It was a close game the entire way.
SU's game against Pitt was a completely different story. The Orangemen (yep, back then) trailed by 12 at half and had to make a serious run to even have a chance in the final few minutes. While games that are close throughout are certainly exciting, sports fans know that a big-time comeback is always a better story.
2. The home team was the underdog
Syracuse, now ranked No. 1 in the country by virtue of Arizona's loss to Cal, was the second-ranked team in the country against Duke. The Blue Devils, on the road, were the team trying to pull the major upset. I'm not taking anything away from their performance - they almost knocked off an elite squad in front of 35,000+ screaming Orange fans.
But back in 2003, Syracuse itself was the underdog. Pitt was ranked No. 2 in the country, and had the Panthers won that day, they would have jumped to No. 1 the following Monday. Winning a game at home against a top-five team when you aren't supposed to just produces a different level of elation.
3. There was an actual game-winning shot
Syracuse took the lead against Duke in overtime on two free throws by Jerami Grant with 39 seconds to play. The ending was certainly exciting, as Quinn Cook had a chance to win it for the Blue Devils at the buzzer. SU fans, having already seen one buzzer-beater on the afternoon, felt a giant sigh of relief when his shot didn't fall.
But winning the game on free throws isn't quite the same as winning on an actual game-winning shot. And no, Jeremy McNeil's put-back off of Gerry McNamara's missed layup wasn't the most beautiful way to win a game, but there's still a huge difference in terms of excitement. The Carrier Dome absolutely exploded when fans realized that the ball had found the hoop.
4. There were 3 court-rushings
Now, if Syracuse fans had rushed the court this past Saturday, it'd have been an embarrassment - you don't do that when you're ranked so high. I'm not advocating that they should have - not even close.
In 2003, however, Syracuse had not yet won a national title, had not defeated a top-five opponent at home and was coming off of one of its most controversial years in program history. Plus, the ending of the game was so bizarre that fans actually rushed the court three times. How? Well, after Jeremy McNeil's aforementioned game-winner, Pitt guard Carl Krauser fumbled the ball before calling timeout with one second to play. The buzzer sounded by accident, and fans rushed the court to celebrate. Once the referees were able to get everyone off of the floor, Panthers guard Brandin Knight launched a desperation 40-foot shot that actually found the nylon. Fans, thinking the shot had come after the clock hit zero, rushed again. Jim Boeheim had to get a microphone to tell fans to get off the court, yet again. Finally, after the shot was ruled too late, fans rushed again - this time in true celebration. Tell me another time when that's happened.
I realize that Boeheim, who has done a solid job ushering Syracuse into the brave new world of the ACC, was just speaking hyperbole after such a huge win. Still, I thought I'd set the record straight.