EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Derrick Coleman rose toward the basket, gently, majestically, as if in slow motion, as if walking up a ladder . . . He was walking up a ladder.
“I’m next! I’m next!” he yelled with each step, and when he reached the top, he lifted the scissors and cut a loop, and the net continued to drop as the crowd screamed in pleasure.
“NEW-OR-LEANS!” he led the chant. “NEW-OR-LEANS! . . .
Get high. The good way. The rebound and stuff and alley-oop kind of way. That was the way Syracuse punched out North Carolina, 79-75, to earn passage to the NCAA’s Final Four Saturday — by playing in the rarefied air where you are the first to get your hands on the ball, and the last to touch it before it goes in.
Between young Coleman from Detroit — not to be confused with Coleman Young from Detroit — and Rony Seikaly from Greece, Lebanon and parts unknown, Syracuse had 25 rebounds and 34 points. All were crucial. When the Orangemen needed a board, Coleman seemed to pull it down. When they needed someone to soar over North Carolina’s J.R. Reid, Seikaly was ram-jam.
So appropriately, when Coleman stepped down from the cutting ceremony, he handed over the scissors. And amid squeals of delight, Seikaly went up to make sure the net came down.
“You know,” said an excited Coleman in the arena corridor afterward, “I’ve never cut down a net in my life. I always wanted to do that. Back where I grew up playing (at Hutchins Middle School in Detroit) we didn’t have nets. Or else they were metal.”
He grinned and rolled his eyes. “You can’t cut those, you know.” Boeheim finds a way So this was a first. And what better time? For this, after all, was the first Syracuse team to reach a Final Four under coach Jim Boeheim, a guy who has been trying for years. Never before had he gone past the second round. This time he beat the team most experts figured would wear the crown when this crazy tournament was over. And now his Orangemen will take on Providence — another surprise entrant — for the right to play Monday Night Basketball in New Orleans next week.
“When we started this tournament I told people we’ve got to rebound better,” Boeheim said. “They asked, ‘How can you do that after you haven’t done it the first 30 games?’ “
He looked over at Seikaly and Coleman. “We found a way.”
The two players looked at each other and laughed. Minutes before they had been center court, leaping into each other’s arms, leaping and leaping, as the last seconds of the victory ticked off. If college basketball truly brings together the unlikely, here is case study No. 1. How different can you get? Coleman, a babykins face atop an elastic 6-foot-9 body, grew up on street ball, Motown, where you learn slam-jam with your basketball milk.
Seikaly, meanwhile, grew up in Lebanon and Greece, never played serious hoop until his freshman year at Syracuse, and looks as if he could be unloading fruit on some Mediterranean dock.
Yet they were the pair that did it Saturday, over and over, to the deafening cheers of the orange-clad fans. Seikaly led all scorers with 26 points. Coleman was tops with 14 rebounds. No intimidation here. No question who would shoot J.R. Or outshoot him.
“He’s a good player,” Seikaly said of Reid, in a way that suggested he wasn’t that good. “But we were so psyched for this game. We wouldn’t be intimidated.”
“They wouldn’t lose,” was the way Boeheim would put it. And because they wouldn’t, North Carolina did.
Get high. The Big Eastie boys So Syracuse goes on, and at least one Big East team is assured of a spot in the final. This was the year the Big East was not supposed to be strong. This was a Big Ten year. An ACC year. Try telling that to Syracuse. When and if it comes down.
The Orangemen have beaten Georgia Southern, Western Kentucky, Florida and the Tar Heels to reach this stage. They have done it with Coleman, just a freshman, and Seikaly, who is still learning the game, and Greg Monroe and Sherman Douglas, whose names are never mentioned in the same breath as the Tar Heels’ Kenny Smith’s. But when the buzzer sounded Saturday, it was Smith saying goodby to college basketball, and the Orangemen being mobbed by reporters.
Basketball, in the end, is a game of heights.
“I was so juiced for this game!” said Coleman. He chuckled and slapped his hands. On his head was a yellow cap that read “Final Four Fever.”
“Where’d you get the hat?” he was asked.
“I don’t really know,” he said, touching it. “Someone snuck up there and put it on, I guess.”
He twisted it sideways. He grinned. New Orleans, New Orleans. It felt like a crown.