SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Wes Johnson wasn’t so unselfish for a change, and Gonzaga paid dearly.
The Big East player of the year, who often defers to his teammates despite his considerable all-around talent, scored a career-high 31 points and pulled down 14 rebounds as top-seeded Syracuse hit a dozen 3-pointers to stun the Zags 87-65 on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“Really, my mind-set was to be aggressive on defense, so I think that carried over to the offensive end,” said Johnson, who is finally healed from an injury to his right (shooting) hand in February against Connecticut. “My shot was falling.”
Was it ever.
Johnson was 11 of 16 from the field, including 4 of 6 from beyond the arc, and he wasn’t alone. Andy Rautins hit 7 of 13 shots for 24 points and freshman Brandon Triche had his second straight solid game, finishing with 13 points.
“When they shoot the ball like that, they’re hard to handle,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’re an impressive group.”
Syracuse’s storybook season — the Orange were unranked before the season and made it to No. 1 for the final week before losing to Georgetown in the Big East tournament — continues on Thursday. The Orange (30-4) will play fifth-seeded Butler (30-4) in Salt Lake City in the Wewst Regional.
Gonzaga (27-7) was trying to become the second team from the West Coast Conference to shock the Big East — WCC tournament champ Saint Mary’s stunned second-seeded Villanova on Saturday — but they were no match for the Orange.
Syracuse, which made the round of 16 for the second straight year, again played without 6-foot-9, 260-pound senior center Arinze Onuaku, who’s recovering from a knee injury. Even without Onuaku, the Orange stifled Vermont in the first round, holding the Catamounts to 5 of 22 on 3-point attempts, and continued their surge against Gonzaga.
The Zags made just 3 of 21 from beyond the arc against Syracuse’s aggressive zone defense and shot 41.7 percent for the game, well below their season average of nearly 50 percent. Syracuse, which leads in nation in field goal percentage, shot 60.7 percent in the first half when it took control and 54.7 percent for the game.
Rautins hit three 3s in the first 3 minutes of the second half to extend the lead to 24 points.
“Try to stay aggressive and set the tone for the second half,” Rautins said. “When Wes and I are hitting our shots, we’re a tough team to beat.”
Elias Harris led Gonzaga with 24 points and Robert Sacre had 17 points and eight rebounds. Senior Matt Bouldin, the team’s leading scorer at 16 points a game, was 3 of 13 from the field, missing all six shots he took from beyond the arc. He had eight points, all in the second half.
“It’s been a great ride,” Bouldin said. “It hurts. I’m sad, but I’m happy in some ways. Four best years of my life so far.”
Gonzaga dropped to 0-5 against top seeds in the tournament.
In the hallway about a half-hour before the opening tip, Sacre was overheard calling Syracuse “soft” and a bunch of “pretty boys,” encouraging the Zags to take the game to the Orange.
The Zags needed more than words on this day, though.
Syracuse danced around Onuaku before the opening tip, all of them smiling widely as the partisan crowd roared “Let’s Go Orange!” and then dominated the first half behind Johnson and Triche, who combined for 28 points, hitting 5 of 8 from beyond the arc as Syracuse built a 15-point halftime lead.
Even when the 6-9 Jackson, the key to the Orange defense inside without Onuaku, went to the bench with his third foul with 8:58 left in the opening half, the Orange barely missed a beat with 7-foot freshman DaShonte Riley on the court.
“This team has had such great cohesiveness all year no matter what five guys are on the floor,” Rautins said. “We’re all on the same page.”
Syracuse went on a 9-0 run to take a double-digit lead. Kris Joseph, a fierce driver, streaked along the baseline and was fouled by the 7-foot Sacre, his second. That sent him to the bench and Syracuse continued to attack. Triche bounced in a 3 and converted a pretty left-handed layup off the glass and Johnson hit a pullup jumper from just inside the foul line to give the Orange a 31-21 lead at 6:45.
The Zags regrouped after a timeout and closed to 32-28 on two free throws by Harris with 3:59 left.
Undaunted, the Orange hit their next five shots and closed the half with a 15-4 run. Rautins scored the first five points and Triche fed Johnson for a 3 from the wing to boost the lead to 41-28 with 1:49 remaining.
The Zags were clearly frustrated, and it showed. When Steven Gray whistled a pass that sailed out of bounds along the baseline, his shoulders were slumped and his head was down as he slowly made his way back down the court.
“This team has come to play every game,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after his 829th career victory. “I’ve never had a team that’s come to play every game.”