Is Gerry McNamara overrated?
That was the question being asked when the Big East Tournament began, as his Syracuse team looked to secure at least an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. When it was over, the senior guard made his case for being one of the most underrated players in country.
McNamara had one of the most magical and gritty tournament performances in recent memory and led Syracuse past No. 15 Pittsburgh in the Big East championship game Saturday night in front of a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. The win secured an automatic bid to the Big Dance and the MVP for McNamara. The No. 9-seeded Orange becomes the lowest seeded team to win the title, the first team to win on four consecutive nights, and the third team to win back to back crowns.
“Obviously this week was emotional for me because of the press and what happened,” McNamara said. “For us to come down here and do this is a great thing. We were on the outside looking in coming down here and now there’s a lot of teams looking at us.”
For good reason.
On its road to the championship, Syracuse (23-11) beat three ranked teams, No. 1 Connecticut, No. 23 Georgetown and Pittsburgh.
“This team showed more heart and guts than any team I’ve ever coached,” Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. “Gerry had as good a four days here as anybody that I’ve ever seen since I’ve been coming here.”
McNamara finished the tournament with a combined 65 points, 33 assists and a tournament record 13 three’s.
He hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to beat Cincinnati in the first round and another to send the Orange’s second round game against Connecticut into overtime.
Against the Panthers, though it did not come in the final seconds, he hit a 3-pointer of just as equal importance.
Pittsburgh (24-7) had just erased a 14-point half time deficit and took its first lead of the game at 48-47 when Carl Krauser, who had a game-high 16 points, found Sam Young for a layup.
McNamara immediately responded with a three that put Syracuse up for good at 50-48 with 8:17 remaining. The Orange shot 50 percent, 8-for-16, from behind the arc.
“I’m happy for him,” Krauser said. “He battled. He quieted all the naysayers, and he made a tough shot and led his team like he was supposed to.”
The 6-foot-2 McNamara, playing with a sore groin, scored 14 points, 10 in the first half, and dished up six assists.
Demetris Nichols led Syracuse with 15 points and six rebounds. Terrence Roberts added 13 points.
For Pittsburgh, who upset second-ranked Villanova, 68-55, in the semifinals, it was its fourth trip to the championship game in five years and its third loss during that span.
“I’m not satisfied,” Krauser said. “I’m never satisfied to get all the way to the championship game and lose.”
It’s a fate Syracuse avoided for the second straight year as its heads to the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the only question that remains for the Orange is how far McNamara will take it.
“It’s tough when people call you overrated,” he said. “I mean, there’s no question about that.”
Nor should there be about McNamara.