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SU, Marquette in one final matchup


WASHINGTON — Familiarity often breeds contempt. But in this case, it also generates mutual respect for the opponent.

Syracuse and Marquette meet for the final time as Big East Conference foes today in the NCAA East Region championship game at the Verizon Center. The game has extra meaning because the winner will advance to the Final Four for the first time in 10 years since they gathered in New Orleans during the Orange’s run to their only national title.

“To be honest, I wish we weren’t playing each other,’’ Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “If we were in different regions, perhaps we both could continue on to Atlanta. We have only the utmost respect for Syracuse and coach (Jim Boeheim).’’

Boeheim, who has taken SU to the Elite Eight for the second straight season and ninth time in his 37 years as coach, echoed Williams’s thoughts.

“We know just how good they are and what kind of challenge they present,’’ Boeheim said. “I guess it’s only fitting that two Big East teams are vying for a Final Four spot at a Big East site.’’

Beyond the praise and mutual admiration, there is also a measure of revenge on the Orange’s side. Some of the players still remember their NCAA loss to Marquette in Cleveland two years ago in the third round, as well as a 76-71 conference loss in Milwaukee on Feb. 25 of this year.

“It’s hard going against an opponent that knows you so well,’’ SU senior Brandon Triche said. “So you know going in that you must execute, not make mistakes and be on your game because they probably will.’’

In that first meeting this season, Marquette dominated the inside against SU’s 2-3 zone. Davante Gardner, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound junior, torched the Orange for a career-high 26 points, including 12 of 13 at the foul line, as the Golden Eagles took 35 free throws to only seven for Syracuse.

“They beat us badly on the offensive boards,’’ Boeheim said. “Then they found Gardner in good spots and he made some good plays. We actually did a pretty good job on their perimeter people.’’

Williams said he doesn’t expect Gardner to repeat that kind of performance “because Syracuse will make an adjustment on all of our paint touches.’’

Junior forward Vander Blue, averaging 19 points over his last five games, and junior forward Jamil Wilson, who has reached double figures in six of his past seven games, have picked up the slack.

“The key for them is they are making more shots late in the season,’’ Boeheim said. “In my mind, they are one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they handle the ball very well.’’

Marquette realizes that the Orange have been playing its best perimeter defense of the season in the NCAA Tournament. In its three NCAA games, SU has limited Montana, California and Indiana to a woeful 11-for-67 from 3-point range.

“They make you initiate your offense way above the foul line because their guards (Triche, Michael Carter-Williams) are so long,’’ Williams said. “Then their bigs come up and compress the lane so you lose about eight feet. A lot of time, you have nowhere to go but backwards, and that’s a bad starting point.’’

Said Blue: “A lot of teams have zoned us this year so I think we’re prepared. I think we’re mentally and physically prepared to face them.’’

SU’s guards, Carter-Williams (career-high 24 points) and Triche (14) continually beat Indiana’s undersized guards to the basket.

“They are a lot more physical than Indiana,’’ Carter-Williams said of Marquette. “They try to bump you off the ball and use as much contact as the refs will allow.’’

SU has continued to shoot well in the postseason. But Marquette plays a disrupting style of man-to-man defense, with a premium on not allowing anything easy going to the basket.

“If they are going to beat us, it’s going to be from the outside,’’ senior guard Junior Cadougan said. “The first time we did a good job of stopping that (SU was 8-for-24 on 3-pointers) so our goal is still the same.’’

Marquette, which won its first two NCAA games against Davidson (59-58) and (74-72) by a combined three points, knows it is playing with house money.

“Hopefully, all the close games we’ve played in the last month help you grow as a team,’’ Williams said. “But this is Syracuse, and that’s never easy.’’

The Orange came up a few points short of making the Final Four last year with an Elite Eight loss to Ohio State. Junior C.J. Fair said that experience “helps us maintain our focus this time. We know how it feels to get so close and come up short. We’ll do whatever it takes to move on this season.’’

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