NEW YORK If someone would have told you three days ago that Baye Moussa Keita and Trevor Cooney would play key roles in Syracuses incredible run to the Big East Conference championship game, they probably would have had their head examined.
But, with their top players struggling, and the Orange in need of a lift in Fridays semifinals against top-seeded Georgetown, the junior backup center and the redshirt freshman guard came off the bench to help spark a 58-55 overtime win over the Hoyas.
Keita, averaging just 15.3 minutes and only 3.3 points per game, scored 13 huge points and grabbed eight rebounds in a career-high 41 minutes.The Orange built a double-digit lead, squandered it in the last few minutes of regulation and then won in overtime.
Cooney, who was supposed to give the Orange a lift with his outside shooting, had been a huge disappointment. He averaged just 11.7 minutes, and struggled from long range, hitting only 31 percent of his 3-pointers. But he scored 10 first-half points, making two of three from beyond the arc, and grabbed four rebounds during his strong 15-minute stint.
What can you say but they saved us today and were the best players on the court for long stretches, SU coach Jim Boeheim said. Baye was unbelievable. He really fought hard against a very physical team. And Trevor finally showed us what weve been seeing in practice all season.
Keita was especially clutch at the foul line, where he came in making just 49 percent of his shots. Friday, he went 7-for-7, including four clutch free throws in the final 2½ minutes of regulation as the Orange held on for dear life.
I just try to play as hard as I can for as long as I can, said Keita, who hails from Senegal. Today, my teammates really needed me to be tough and aggressive. And Ive been working really hard in practice with coach (Mike) Hopkins on my free throws. He used to make fun of me out there. But now Im shooting with a lot more confidence and I can picture the ball going in.
Boeheim even said, sarcastically, Im going to have Baye shoot our technical foul shots from now on.
Keita plays behind starter Rakeem Christmas, who was ineffective in his four-minute action with no points and no rebounds.Rak had a tough day, so I was my turn to help him out, Keita said. Tomorrow, it could be him that has a big game.
As for Cooney, he has never found a shooting rhythm from day one after sitting out his freshman season a year ago. But that did not deter the Wilmington, Delaware, native from staying positive.
Ive practiced hard and today it finally produced results, said Cooney, who hit double figures for the first time since Dec. 31 against Central Connecticut. At times, Ive felt like I let the team and my coaches down. But theyve been very supportive and encouraging, so I had to do something when they needed me.
Senior guard Brandon Triche said hes never seen Cooney discouraged or down on himself. Thats a credit to his character and his faith in his game. To do that on such a big stage, Im really happy for him.
BOEHEIM CREDITS ASSISTANTS
When the Orange arrived home from last Saturdays 61-39 pasting at Georgetown, Boeheim gathered his assistants together for a bull session on what could be done to turn the recent struggles around.
Boeheim said after Fridays semifinal win, its those guys who really got the players believing in themselves and put in so many hours of hard work in the few days before we came to New York.
The assistants Mike Hopkins, Adrian Autry and Gerry McNamara spent a good part of that time trying to repair the wounded psyche of the Orange, which had lost seven of its final 12 Big East Conference games.
It was more of a tutorial on what we needed to do to be successful again, and trying to make the most of every possession on offense anddefense, Hopkins said. Give all the credit to the players.
The players bought into what the assistants were saying, and really changed their attitude, Hopkins said. They came in here a lot more confident and believing in themselves and their teammates.
ODDS AND ENDS
SU and Georgetown have played the most games in the 34-year history of the event. SU is now 50-28, while Georgetown is a Big East best 51-27.SU is now 4-1 in semifinal matchups with Georgetown, and the tournament series is tied 7-7.