Largest crowd in NIT history cheers Orange to second-round win

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Too much Orange for San Diego State.

The largest crowd in NIT history -- an orange-clad swarm of 26,752 -- braved sleet, snow and a biting March wind to give the Carrier Dome a championship atmosphere Monday night, and the Syracuse Orange responded with an 80-64 second-round victory over San Diego State.

For the team's four seniors -- Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts, Darryl Watkins and Matt Gorman -- it was their last home game, and they relished every minute.

"We like the fact that we came in here and broke the record," said Roberts. "We're making history. Even though we were put in a bad situation a lot of guys really didn't want to be in, we're making the best of it."

It had been eight days since the NCAA selection committee overlooked Syracuse despite a resume that included a 6-1 record in February and a dominating 14-point victory over Georgetown, the Hoyas only loss in the past 21 games.

That oversight may be in the past. It certainly won't be forgotten.

"It's always going to be in the back of your mind, no matter what you say and no matter how much you try to forget about it," Roberts said. "All we can do now is try to win out."

Syracuse (24-10), the second seed in the South, will play at Clemson (23-10) on Wednesday night in the quarterfinals.

Sixth-seeded San Diego State (22-11) was one of three teams to pull a first-round upset on the road, beating third-seeded Missouri State 74-70.

It was only the second postseason win for the Aztecs in 37 seasons at the Division I level. The streak was short-lived.

Syracuse, clinging to a 38-33 halftime lead, outscored the Aztecs 19-7 to start the second half, finishing the burst with an 11-0 run that gave the Orange a commanding 19-point lead.

"Too many orange in the stands and too much orange on the court against us," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "We fought hard and competed hard, but weren't quite good enough tonight. We were hopeful that we could find a way to make a few more shots, but it just wasn't to be."

Nichols had 20 points and Andy Rautins scored 15. Watkins had eight rebounds and six blocks, and freshman Paul Harris had 12 points and seven rebounds, combining with Eric Devendorf for 10 of the Orange's 21 assists.

Lorrenzo Wade led the Aztecs with 16 points before fouling out with just more than two minutes left, and Mohamed Abukar had 14.

Senior guard Brandon Heath, whose 3-pointer in the final seconds won the Aztecs' first-round game, finished with 15 points and seven assists and shot 3-for-12 on 3-pointers. But he wasn't the big factor he normally is, thanks to the work of the 6-foot-11 Watkins and 6-9 Roberts.

"They definitely let their presence be known in the paint," said Heath. "They did that from start to finish, and that was one of the keys."

So was the crowd, which was both deafening and creative. One sign that was repeatedly held aloft read -- "That would have looked good in the tournament" -- referring to that other affair that will decide the national champion next month in Atlanta.

"We wanted to show our appreciation because they didn't have to come out," said Nichols, who leads the team in scoring at 19 points per game. "They've been great all year. This is a good way to go out for the team and the city. They have been the best fans in the whole country."

Syracuse made nine 3-pointers, outrebounded the Aztecs 49-33, committed only four turnovers in the second half, and stifled the Aztecs with some staunch defense.

That, and the fans, left a smile on head coach Jim Boeheim's face.

"The fans are tremendous and have been for 31 years here," said Boeheim, who turned and applauded when the attendance was announced. "You have to be appreciative how much they were into the game from the beginning."

The previous record crowd for an NIT game was 23,522, set in 1979 when Clemson played at Kentucky.