With four wins on consecutive nights, Gerry McNamara set the bar for Big East Tournament heroics.
Second Place: Gerry McNamara in 2006
Before there was Kemba, Gerry McNamara lit up the Garden with four heroic wins on consecutive nights to send Syracuse to the Big Dance.
It was 2006 and the Syracuse Orange had floundered to the ninth seed in the Big East Tournament. Three years earlier, Jim Boeheim's squad had ridden fabulous freshman Carmelo Anthony to a national championship. Anthony, a one-and-done before the NBA's ban on high-schoolers made the freshman year a professional tryout, went on to become the All-Star we know today. Classmate Gerry McNamara took a different route.
McNamara, a four-star recruit out of Scranton, PA, averaged 13.3 points per game his freshman season. A strong shooter, he racked up the Big East's career record in three-points made and free-throw percentage. However, Syracuse's early exit from the NCAA Tournament his junior year--spurred on by T.J. Sorrentine "from the parking lot"--left an open question about G-Mac's legacy at the school.
The 2005-2006 campaign started well enough, a close neutral-site loss to eventual champion Florida the only defeat of the first four games, but a home upset to Bucknell raised memories of the previous year's defeat to Vermont in the first round. Syracuse fans weren't looking to relive those memories.
The Orange won their next twelve, including three in conference play, before starting a 4-9 stretch that would see them end the season with a losing conference record and out of contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. Seeded ninth, Syracuse needed to win an unheard-of four games in four days to clinch the Big East's automatic bid. The table was set for Gerry McNamara.
Down 73-71 to Cincinnati with eight seconds remaining, Syracuse's Terrance Roberts rebounded a Devan Downey free throw to give the Orange the ball with a chance to win or tie. McNamara, already with 14 points and nine assists, took the ball cross-court and lifted a one-handed attempt with half a second remaining from just beyond the three-point arc. He nailed it, pulling Syracuse to a one-point victory in the first round. After the game Boeheim said of his player, "Without Gerry McNamara, we wouldn't have won ten games this year." They would win a few more before G-Mac cooled off.
Next up was a date with top-ranked Connecticut. The Huskies clawed back from an 11-point halftime deficit to take a 74-71 lead with 11 seconds left in regulation. Once again, a McNamara three was what Syracuse needed to get back in the game. The senior made three of four foul shots in the final minute of overtime to seal the 86-84 victory for the Orange. This time, the box score read a double-double for McNamara--17 points and 13 assists--just enough to help his team pull it out.
Against Georgetown in the semifinals, Syracuse's luck seemed to finally run out. A 36-21 halftime lead for the Hoyas put the nail in the coffin after back-to-back Syracuse wins. But G-Mac had other ideas. With four three-pointers in a seven minute span, McNamara cut the Georgetown lead to four. After pulling within one with five minutes remaining, Syracuse struggled to get the ball back. Offensive rebounds and Orange fouls gave Georgetown control of the basketball down the stretch but the Hoyas only managed to extend their lead by three. Gerry erased that with a triple of his own with 48 seconds left and dished it off half a minute later to give Eric Devendorf a chance to hit the game winner. Devendorf's basket lifted Syracuse to a 58-57 win and stunned the Hoyas. After three white-knuckle performances, Syracuse's legs were tired but they were just one win away from the impossible: a Big East Tournament championship.
The following night against Pittsburgh, no last second heroics were needed. Free throws by Eric Devendorf and Josh Wright kept Syracuse on top despite some clutch shooting by Aaron Gray and Carl Krauser. McNamara's 14 points and six assists were enough to boost Syracuse to a 65-61 win and cap a stunning week in Madison Square Garden.
Syracuse would fall the next week, another victim of a first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament. However, Gerry McNamara's legacy was already solidified. After setting the mark for all future Big East Tournament runs, McNamara played overseas and in the D-League before returning to Syracuse as an assistant coach. Time will tell whether he can lead another Syracuse team through a magical March, this time from the sidelines.