SAN JOSE, Calif. — For the second consecutive year, Hamilton’s Michael Carter-Williams and Syracuse are going to the Sweet 16.
This year, Carter-Williams is a major reason why.
Carter-Williams, Syracuse’s starting point guard and a Bob Cousy Award finalist, scored 12 points, handed out three assists and grabbed a pair of rebounds as the fourth-seeded Orange defeated 12th-seeded California, 66-60, on Saturday night to advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse struggled on offense, but found a way to win with defense. The Orange held Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe to just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
“It’s like when a shark smells blood,” said Carter-Williams, a sophomore who played a limited role with Syracuse last year. “You just get excited and want to keep going and shut him down some more. We definitely got that feeling and it just pushed us to play defense more.”
C.J. Fair scored 18 points, James Southerland added 14 for Syracuse, which will now play No. 1 seed Indiana on Thursday night.
“It was not pretty,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Honestly, I don’t think I can describe it. It was about as ugly as I think it can get.”
Boeheim was talking specifically about the closing minutes, but that sentiment could sum up most of the game on the offensive end. Syracuse (28-9) made just 39 percent of its shots and missed 15 of 41 free throws.
Richard Solomon scored 22 points for the Bears (21-12), who were trying to reach the round of 16 for the first time in 16 years and just the third time since 1960. They were denied because they couldn’t solve Syracuse’s defense.
“The zone accomplished what it wanted to,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “I was fearful that was going to happen. I knew where the strengths of the zone and what the weaknesses were. I wasn’t sure we had the personnel in a day to get done what we needed to get done.”
Boeheim earned his 50th career NCAA tournament win as the Orange reached the regional semifinals for the fourth time in five years. This might have been one of the ugliest of those wins as Syracuse struggled to make a basket in the second half, relying on strong play on the defensive end and a parade to the foul line.
The teams combined for just three made baskets in the first 10:50 of the second half and Syracuse went almost six minutes without even taking a shot as Cal committed seven shooting fouls in the opening 6:02. The Orange hit eight of those 14 free throws to extend their lead to 42-30, but went 12:13 without a basket from the field.
“We knew we had an advantage, us guards, being able to get by their guards,” Brandon Triche said. “So that’s what we wanted to do. I think within the first five minutes or so, we probably created six fouls on their guys and got in the bonus very early.”
As frustrated as the Bears and their fans were with the lopsided foul count, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense was even more confounding. Crabbe found no room to get off a shot, with the Syracuse defenders closing quickly on him even when he caught the ball 25 feet from the basket.
Point guard Justin Cobbs also struggled against the zone and even when Cal got the ball inside, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita were there to block or alter the shot.
Cal managed to get a 14-point lead cut down to seven with less than five minutes to go but Southerland and Carter-Williams answered with tough shots at the other end to quiet the crowd and keep Syracuse in control.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Crabbe and Tyrone Wallace got the deficit back down to 58-51 with 1:50 to go and Cal stole the inbound pass, but Crabbe stepped on the sideline to give the Orange the ball back.
Carter-Williams then drew a charge from Cobbs with a minute left and the Orange up seven. Keita’s dunk sealed the victory.