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Alabama Deletes Syracuse

Crimson Tide unseats the defending national champion, 80-71, and reaches the round of eight for the first time.

March 26, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — The Tide has finally turned.

After eight Sweet 16s, three in which Coach Mark Gottfried was a player, Alabama is in the Elite Eight for the first time after knocking out defending champion Syracuse, 80-71, in front of 17,684 Thursday at America West Arena.

It took a senior named Antoine Pettway, who wore a pair of his favorite shiny red shoes for luck, and a lineup that included a freshman and two sophomores to put an end to the school's 0-7 streak.

"I told the team, 'I'm 40 years old and there's nothing I can do about it now. You don't want to have regrets,'" said Gottfried, who lost in the Sweet 16 in 1985, '86 and '87.

"'You have an opportunity to do it. I can't change what happened to me.'"

There's nothing that any of them wants to change today, unless perhaps they could trade for an easier opponent than Connecticut in the regional final Saturday.

"I'm excited we've taken this step, and I'm hoping we're not done," said Gottfried, who was an assistant coach at UCLA when the Bruins won the 1995 national championship.

Three games into this NCAA tournament, Alabama seems like a charmed team.

The Crimson Tide (20-12) survived a shot at the buzzer to beat Southern Illinois in the first round, then upset top-seeded and top-ranked Stanford in the second round after a three-pointer that would have forced overtime bounded off the rim.

It wasn't that close against Syracuse (23-8), sort of a defending-champion-that-wasn't this season.

No one talked much about repeating because freshman star Carmelo Anthony went to the NBA after winning the NCAA title.

Alabama came out firing at Syracuse's famous 2-3 zone.

The game was 37 seconds old when Pettway sank the first of Alabama's eight first-half three-pointers. (Alabama was nine for 22 in the game.)

Four of Alabama's first five baskets were threes, and junior Earnest Shelton led the way by making four of eight three-pointers in the game to finish with 22 points. Kennedy Winston scored 19, including three three-pointers.

By the second half, the inside opened for slender sophomore center Chuck Davis after Syracuse switched to a man-to-man, and he finished with 19 points, many of them on dunks.

"We just started going down there to him and he just started dominating," Pettway said.

The Orangemen relied on springy-legged forward Hakim Warrick in the first half, and he finished with 21 points after Alabama's defense slowed him in the second.

"Right now it just hurts," Warrick said. "A month from now, we'll probably look back on it and say, 'We got back to the Sweet 16.' I think that says a lot about this team."

Gerry McNamara, the Syracuse guard who scored 43 points in the first round against Brigham Young, had four points in the first half but finished with 24 by making four three-pointers as he desperately tried to bring Syracuse back. But 18 turnovers, 10 in the second half, helped spell Syracuse's fate.

Alabama led by two points at halftime and by 11 eight minutes into the second half, but the Orangemen kept coming back.

Syracuse fought back to tie the score twice, but Alabama kept turning the Orangemen away. And when Syracuse decided to press, Alabama didn't falter.

"We just kept our cool, kept our heads," Shelton said. "Basketball's a game of runs. We just weathered it."

Alabama played a near-perfect game, especially for a team that had won only 16 games before the Southeastern Conference tournament began.

But the Crimson Tide made the NCAA field on the strength of its schedule, No. 1 in the nation according to the Ratings Percentage Index, and an impressive victory over Mississippi State.

Now it's not only in the field of 65, it's in the field of eight.

"Alabama played great. They played hard. They played well," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. "They are a good team."

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