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Big East Tournament Flashback: Gerry McNamara cements his legacy at Syracuse

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Heading into the Big East Tournament, Syracuse was in survival mode, needing a few extra wins to reach the NCAA Tournament. An "overrated" senior heeded the call and turned in one of the most clutch postseason performances in history

When the Syracuse Orange cut down the nets in New Orleans in 2003 and raised their national title, all eyes were on freshman phenom Carmelo Anthony.  The Oak Hill Academy star went to New York and gave Jim Boeheim the one thing missing from his resume that Jim Calhoun and John Thompson long had on theirs: a National Championship.

But while all eyes were fixated on the soon-to-be No. 3 pick in the draft, there was another diaper dandy on the roster that deserved much of the credit.

Gerry McNamara was a product of small-town America. A two-time State Player of the Year, McNamara became a Pennsylvania legend, going 109-17 in his four years at Bishop Hannan High School.  His tenacity and ferociousness at guard was only matched by his shooting touch, which was on full display when Bishop Hannan advanced to the PIAA Class AA playoffs in 2002.

Bishop Hannan returned to the Class AA Semifinal with one goal in mind: to avenge the heartbreak of last season's loss to the eventual champion Trinity High.  With fury in his eyes, McNamara bombarded Trinity with 41 first half points, finishing with a career-high 55 to send the Golden Lancers to the state championship game against Sto-Rox High.

With his team trailing by 7 late in the third quarter, McNamara drew his fourth foul.  Bishop Hannan's sensational senior had to sit on the bench and watch in the biggest game of his career, but his team never faltered.  The team picked up the slack and pulled within two with just under five minutes left.  That's when McNamara rose from the bench and checked in, and seven seconds later, like a white knight, McNamara drained a 3 from the right corner to give Bishop Hannan the lead.  The 6-foot-2 guard scored 13 of his team's final 15 points down the stretch to carry Bishop Hannan to a 70-68 win over Sto-Rox and the Class AA championship.

Gerry McNamara ended his high school career a local legend, and for his accomplishments, he was named the 20th greatest athlete in Scranton-area history, his basketball skills putting him slightly ahead of Stanley Hudson on the list.  He was heavily recruited by the likes of Billy Donovan and Mike Krzyzewski, even fielding offers from Seton Hall and North Carolina.  But for Gerry McNamara, home was just a two-hour drive north.

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Jim Boeheim and Syracuse had just completed a run of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances behind the likes of Jason Hart, Etan Thomas and Preston Shumpert, but in 2002 the Orangemen became the first Big East team to win 20 games and fail to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.  Boeheim would retool the following year with one of the most prized recruiting classes in NCAA history.

The Orange signed McNamara to go along with a pair of stars from Oak Hill Academy - 6-foot-8 phenom Carmelo Anthony and his running mate Billy Edelin - and Matt Gorman, who developed into a major player off the bench for Cuse in his later years.  These four, along with holdovers Keith Duany and Hakim Warrick, were tasked with leading the Orange back to the Big Dance.  It took them only a year to make history.

Gerry McNamara was slated to come off the bench to open the 2002-03 season, but when Edelin was suspended for off-the-court activity, he was thrust into the starting point guard role.  He wouldn't relinquish it.  McNamara would go on to start all 135 games of his career at Syracuse, being the one constant from the Orange's miraculous run in 2003 to their heroic run to the Big East title in 2006.

McNamara showed his big game potential early in his college career.  His game-winning 3-pointer lifted Cuse over then-No. 10 Notre Dame.  He followed that up a month later at Georgetown, scoring 10 of his 22 points in overtime to guide the Orange past the Hoyas.  McNamara helped lead the Orangemen to a 30-5 record, and a perfect 17-0 in the Carrier Dome that year averaging 13 points on 40% shooting from the field and 4.6 assists over the season.

The 3rd-seeded Orange would claw their way to the National Championship game and squared off with Roy Williams and a talented Kansas Jayhawks team, led by Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.  McNamara set the Superdome on fire that night, sinking 3 after 3 with each one longer and more jaw-dropping than the last.  The sharpshooter knocked down six first-half 3-pointers and steered the Orange to their first National Championship in school history.  G-Mac was named to the All-Tournament team for his play that March, and the legend grew.

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Melo fled for the greener pastures of the NBA, becoming the 3rd overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets.  But Gerry McNamara stayed, soldiering on as the leader of the Syracuse Orange and further cultivating his legacy in New York. 2004 featured some classic moments in McNamara lore. There was the time he was non-existent at No. 3 Pitt, zero-for-8 heading into overtime before his game-winning 3 at the buzzer ended the Panthers 40-game home win streak.

Then came the clash with BYU in the first round of the NCAA tournament that same year.  The Orange came back from a 13-point deficit on the back of McNamara, who erupted for 43 points, the most for a Syracuse player in an NCAA tournament game, going 11-for-17 and sank nine 3-pointers, third-most in tournament history.  After the game, Jim Boeheim called it "as good of a performance as I've ever seen in college basketball."

Cuse would fall in the Sweet 16 to Alabama, but they came back in 2005 reinvigorated under McNamara and Hakim Warrick, opening the 2004-05 year as the 6th-ranked program in the country.  They seized their first Big East title since 1992, disposing of West Virginia in the Big East Championship game, but the good times did not last long, as the 4th-seeded Orange were upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by 13th-seeded Vermont.

Gerry McNamara's final season at Syracuse began much different than the others.  Hakim Warrick, Josh Pace and Craigh Forth had all graduated and Billy Edelin's issues proved to be too much for Jim Boeheim to stomach, and he was kicked off the team the year prior.  That left McNamara as the only returning starter from the 2004-05 season.  After starting the year 3-2 and dropping out of the Top 25 in November, the Orange began to cruise through non-conference play, racking off nine-straight victories heading into Big East play.  The conference schedule began favorably for Syracuse, winning close games over South Florida and Notre Dame and making short work of Cincinnati.

Then came the struggles.  Syracuse endured a four-game losing streak, losing inside the dome to UConn and Seton Hall, and failing to show up on the road at Villanova and Pittsburgh.  The Orange would go 4-5 the remainder of the season, losing its final 3 regular season games, including by a 39-point shellacking at DePaul.  McNamara's final game inside the Carrier Dome, the fan favorite put on a show for the Syracuse faithful, scoring a game-high 29 points in a losing effort to Villanova.  He said after the game, "If I was going out with a loss, that's the way I wanted to go out - fighting." It was his fight that wrote the final chapter of McNamara's legend at Madison Square Garden

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Prior to the 2006 Big East Tournament, the point-counterpoint section of the Daily Orange, the student-run campus paper at Syracuse, questioned whether their fabled point guard was a little overhyped.  The next month, the Syracuse Post-Standard ran a poll of 15 Big East assistant coaches, in which Gerry McNamara was voted the Most Overrated Player in the Big East.  A week earlier, a similar poll in Sports Illustrated agreed.

McNamara went into his final Big East tournament needing to shed his newfound "overrated" label.  He was still Syracuse's best player that year by a wide margin, averaging 16 points a game, but his 3-point percentage had faltered to a career low 33.4 and he took 100 more threes than any of his teammates.

In the first game of the Big East tourney, Syracuse found themselves trailing 73-71 against Cincinnati, facing elimination from the tournament and possibly bursting their NCAA tournament bubble.  With 6 seconds on the clock, McNamara took the inbound pass, weaved past mid-court in between two defenders and lobbed a running one-handed 3-pointer, tickling the twine with less than a second to go.  The miracle shot sent Syracuse into the second round, and sent Jim Boeheim on a tirade.

"Without Gerry McNamara, we wouldn’t have won 10 fucking games this year. OK? Not 10. These other guys just aren’t ready. They needed him. Without him there, not 10. We wouldn’t be here to even have a chance to play this game. And everybody’s talking to me and writing to me about Gerry McNamara being overrated? That’s the most bullshit thing I’ve seen in 30 years..."

With reaffirmation from his head coach, McNamara continued to prove his worth in the next round, when the Orange met top-seeded UConn in the second round.  Syracuse held a big lead in the first half on the heels of 10 McNamara assists, but the Huskies kept fighting back, eventually taking the lead with 30 seconds to play.  It was the overrated one playing the hero once again, heaving a 30-foot 3-pointer with five seconds left in regulation to force overtime.  Syracuse would upset UConn 86-84 to advance, led by McNamara's 17 points and 13 assists, one shy of a Big East tournament record.

In their third game in three days, Syracuse found themselves behind Georgetown in the semifinal game, trailing by 15 going into the second half.  Hope began to dwindle for the Syracuse faithful with McNamara on the bench with an injured groin.  But a legend rises above adversity and perseveres through pain, so he checked back into the game and hit five second-half threes, cutting the Hoya lead to one with 45 seconds left.  The defense was able to force a steal on the other end, and with time waning, McNamara rushed down the court and found a streaking Eric Devendorf for the game-winning lay-up.  Three games, three days, three improbable wins pushed the Syracuse Orange to the Big East championship game.  Gerry McNamara had done the unthinkable almost at will. But he wasn't done.

In the finals, Syracuse led Pitt for most of the contest, but the Panthers weren't giving in, taking the lead midway through the second half.  G-Mac was having none of it, and his signature 3 put the Orange up for good.  Syracuse eased their way to a 65-61 win and another Big East championship.  McNamara finished with 14 points and 6 assists in the championship game, and as if there was any other choice, was named Tournament MVP.  Syracuse had become the first Big East team to win four tournament games in four days to win the Big East, and Gerry McNamara silenced his critics in the process.

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Syracuse's unlikely run wouldn't carry over to the NCAA Tournament, and they were upset by 12th-seeded Texas A&M 66-58 in the first round.  McNamara tried to fight through injury, but he couldn't overcome it, finishing with just two points in 23 minutes of play.  He ended his college career as the fourth leading scorer in Syracuse history, tops in three's made and minutes played, and as one of the most clutch performers in Big East history.

He went undrafted that summer, and after playing for the Orlando Magic in the Summer League, he was not offered a contract.  With his NBA dreams dashed, McNamara went overseas and played for Olympiacos BC in Greece, but left to sign with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League. He spent the next few seasons shuffling back and forth between Europe and the D-League before calling it a career.

In 2009, McNamara returned to Syracuse to earn his graduate degree and joined Jim Boeheim's staff as a grad assistant, and was elevated to assistant coach in 2011, a role he still serves in today.  His playing days have long past him, but the legend of Gerry McNamara still resonate in the hearts and minds of Syracuse fans everywhere.