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Syracuse routs Middle Tennessee State to reach Sweet 16

Syracuse's Tyler Lydon, right, falls after being fouled by Middle Tennessee's Reggie Upshaw Jr. during the second half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, March 20, 2016, in St. Louis. Syracuse won 75-50. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
Associated Press

ST. LOUIS – There is no more looking backward for Syracuse these days.

No more time spent pondering the past.

After suffocating No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State with their trademark zone defense in a 75-50 thrashing on Sunday night to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16, the only thing the No. 10 seed Orange are focused on is just how much farther they can go in the NCAA tournament.

“We have to make sure we understand there’s a lot to be done, a lot that can be done. A lot of good things can happen,” longtime coach Jim Boeheim said. “We need to focus on those things.”

Besides, looking backward isn’t all that appealing – that nasty NCAA investigation, the suspension of their coach, the lousy finish to the regular season that left them teetering on the tournament bubble.

Better to live in the present and dream about the future: The Orange will join five other ACC schools, a record from a single conference, in the next round when they play Gonzaga on Friday in Chicago.

“To win these games,” the Orange’s Trevor Cooney said, “I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

Michael Gbinije poured in 23 points and Tyler Lydon added 14 against Middle Tennessee State, but the game hinged on a 21-2 run midway through the second half that cracked open what had been a close affair.

“They just took over,” Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis said. “Their length really bothered us around the goal. We couldn’t get anything in there. And their perimeter was absolutely terrific.”

The Blue Raiders (25-10), who shredded so many brackets with their upset of second-seeded Michigan State, made things tough on Syracuse for a while. They led early in the second half and still trailed just 40-39 with 16:02 to go, but proceeded to make one of their next 16 field-goal attempts.

Darnell Harris wound up leading Middle Tennessee State with 11 points, while Reggie Upshaw – who had 21 in that landmark victory over the Spartans – was held to two on 1-for-10 shooting.

“These guys have a firm legacy in the history of this school, the history of this tournament, and that’s what they’ll be judged on,” Davis said. “We’ll forget about this one really quickly.”

Cooney got Syracuse (21-13) off to a good start with three early 3s, but he was just as valuable alongside Gbinije at the top of its zone. The long, athletic guards were able to cut off the Blue Raiders before they could drive to the basket, forcing them to take a series of off-balance jumpers.

Still, their trouble at the foul line allowed Middle Tennessee State to hang in the game.

The Orange led just 31-27 at halftime, and the hardscrabble Blue Raiders even managed to pull ahead when Giddy Potts followed a 3-pointer by Jaqawn Raymond with one of his own out of the break.

But after Potts, the nation’s top 3-point shooter, hit again a few minutes later, the Blue Raiders managed one more field goal over the next 11 minutes. They resorted to deep 3-pointers rather than even try to penetrate the Syracuse defense, and Lydon kept swatting away the few inside chances they had.

“We knew their zone was good,” Harris said. “We just couldn’t make shots.”

Meanwhile, Gbinije started to heat up. The senior knocked down a pair of pull-up jumpers, then curled in a 3 from opposite the Syracuse bench, giving the Orange a 50-41 lead with just over 11 minutes to go.

By the time their game-defining run was over, the Orange were feeling sweet again.

The program has been overshadowed the past couple of years by an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct. The penalties included the loss of scholarships, the vacating of wins and a nine-game suspension for Boeheim while keeping the Orange out of the postseason a year ago.

Well, they’re back. And now they’re sticking around for a while.