NEW YORK -- Dion Waiters had to wait his turn.
He didn’t like it. He didn’t understand it.
But he finally got the message. This wasn't high school. He wasn’t the star anymore. So he stopped thinking about himself and realized that if he locked in on being a contributor, everything would work itself out.
That all seemed to come to fruition Wednesday night, as Waiters scored 11 points in the second half of Syracuse's 69-58 comeback victory over Virginia Tech in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The Orange will now face Stanford, which hammered Oklahoma State, in the final on Friday.
“We’ve got a great group of guys," Waiters said, "and I don’t want to mess that up."
As a freshman last season, Waiters scored 18 against Marquette in the NCAA tournament after averaging 6 points a game during the season. Then he went to work in the offseason. He spent quality time on his game and accepted that for Syracuse to be a potential Big East champ and a threat to get to the Final Four, he had to mature like most freshmen do before their sophomore seasons.
“I want to win a national championship,’’ Waiters said. “This is something that I dream about all my life. I needed to be positive and work hard and I see the changes in my game. I’m getting up the court on the defensive end and working hard all season. I wanted to prove everybody wrong, so I was in the gym three or four times a day and it paid off.’’
Waiters left quite an impression on Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg.
“The guy is a beast,’’ Greenberg said. “He attacks in transition, he attacks off ball screens. He’s shooting the ball now, which makes it that much more difficult to guard. He came off that double ball screen, turned the corner and blew it right to the front of the rim. We were supposed to trap him, but with the first screen we never got there.
“To me, to have the ability to have a guy like that come off the bench, he can single-handedly change a game. He’s kind of an Energizer Bunny on the offensive side of the floor. He’s physically strong. The strength of their backcourt is their strength. They are big, thick tough guys.’’
Going into the season, the fifth-ranked Orange were set on the perimeter, or so it seemed, with Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine. Waiters was in the mix, of course, but it was unclear how much. But after SU's first real test of the season, coach Jim Boeheim has plenty of options. If Waiters is fully on board, the Orange are even deeper and more effective.
“Dion had four easy shots in the first half and he missed them all,’’ Boeheim said. “That’s not going to happen too much with him. He made a couple of tough drives and got going, hit that 3. He did get going. He’s a good offensive player. He’s going to get going.’’
What he did was get the Syracuse offense going. Waiters ran the break effectively and seemed to have a connection with C.J. Fair. The two were clearly in sync.
“He brings energy to the table and when he’s going, the whole team is going,’’ Fair said. “It’s a great combination and a big threat to opposing teams and it gives us another threat on the court. You never know what he’s going to do, but he always brings it seems in spurts.
“I knew that he’s a good passer so when he drives, I get in position to be available for his pass. Luckily I got a dunk [off his pass] that got us going and the team going and the whole gym going. That’s what gave us momentum.’’
For this team to work as one, everyone has to be in it together, no matter who stars. Kris Joseph, who led the Orange with 20 points, doesn’t seem to mind yielding some of the fame. Neither does Triche, who scored 18. And apparently Jardine, who lost minutes to Waiters on Wednesday and scored just 2 points, is on board as well.
That’s a must. The senior leader has to accept the rotation for this to work well during the marathon season.
“We’re hard to beat when we get our shooters out there,’’ Jardine said. “Dion can change the game. In the first half, he was trying to be a scorer, but in the second he was a playmaker and he got two assists right away with two great passes for dunks. That opened up the game. He could start anywhere in the country.
“The biggest thing for him was when he came as a freshman he was used to being the star, but at Syracuse everyone was like that. He had a breakout game against Marquette last year and it was big for him. Now he scores 11 points and 4 assists, but it’s like he scored 30. He’s getting publicity like he scored 30 because it was when he got the 11 points. Nobody on this team will probably get 30. We’re just getting buckets at the right time.’’
The Orange were pushed for the first time this season. They were down by 7 to Virginia Tech at one point. But they flipped the switch to rally against the inexperienced but gritty Hokies. And the reason for the turnaround was Waiters. That won’t be the case every game, but now at least it's a real possibility.
“When the veteran guys aren’t doing exactly what they’re supposed to, [Waiters] comes in and provides a great spark for us,’’ Joseph said. “He brings the atmosphere and the crowd got into it. He did a great job for us off the bench.’’