SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — When Syracuse easily beat defending national champion North Carolina in November, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was duly impressed.
Not only by Syracuse but also Le Moyne, which had defeated the Orange in an exhibition matchup a few weeks earlier.
“We got our tails beat by a very good basketball team,” Williams said after the 16-point setback in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. “I would hate to play that non-Division I team on a regular basis if they are better than Syracuse.”
Fast forward to late December. After guiding Syracuse to a seven-point victory over Seton Hall in the Orange’s Big East opener, head coach Jim Boeheim was relieved to have survived a tough one on the road.
“The only close game we’ve had this year we lost,” Boeheim said. “That game didn’t count, either.”
Welcome to the world of Le Moyne coach Steve Evans, whose Dolphins are that non-Division I team Williams was referring to and the winners of that close game Boeheim still laments.
Until Pittsburgh came to town in early January, Le Moyne was the only team to beat fifth-ranked Syracuse this season — though it was in the preseason. The feeling of elation from that November night lingers, both on the Internet — the game box remains prominently displayed on the Le Moyne Web site — and in the players’ collective psyche.
“I think about it at least once every day,” said senior forward Laurence Ekperigin, who has caught the eye of a couple of NBA scouts. “Someone always reminds me at least once a day.”
The aftermath has been like no other in the 10 years Evans has been head coach. From Syracuse to Seattle to Europe, Le Moyne alumni were boasting about their alma mater.
“It was overwhelming. It didn’t go away, and it hasn’t,” Evans said. “I just spoke at the Rotary Club, and believe me, they didn’t want to know about our St. Bonaventure game (a 76-65 road loss in mid-December).
“That level that we bounced to was so high,” Evans said. “We could lose five games in a row, and people say ‘Congratulations’ everywhere I go. Before, you lose three or four games and you just want to crawl under a rock. People in Syracuse now want to know when we’re playing OCC (Onondaga Community College) to get the city championship.”
That one game notwithstanding, Le Moyne, a Jesuit school founded in 1946 with an enrollment today of 2,300, toils in virtual anonymity on the other side of this Orange-crazy city in upstate New York. Syracuse regularly averages more than 20,000 fans at the Carrier Dome, many of them Le Moyne alumni, while the Dolphins were happy to attract a season-high 801 to their home opener against Southern Connecticut State.
“If you grow up in this area, you’re probably a Syracuse fan,” said Evans, who attends a couple of Syracuse games every year. “Chances are, even if you go to a place like Saint Joseph’s down in Philly, I think you’re still following Syracuse, too, and we’re Division II.
“It’s hard to get kids on campus to buy into their school spirit and pride when Syracuse is three miles down the road and you’ve always been a Syracuse fan,” Evans said. “But we’ve gotten some great support. If people come here to see a game, I think they’ll respect the level of basketball and hopefully come back.”
Former coach John Beilein, now the head man at Michigan, transformed Le Moyne into a Division II power, leading the Dolphins to a 163-94 record from 1983-92. Le Moyne once was good enough to regularly beat fellow upstate Jesuit rival Siena (Le Moyne has a 39-23 record against the Saints, who moved to Division I in 1976 and are a power in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), but the teams haven’t played since Beilein left and Le Moyne has remained in Division II, sort of lost in the shuffle.
Despite the considerable attention he’s received, Evans can no longer bask in the glory of that fall evening when Christopher Johnson drained the decisive 3-pointer in the final seconds that sent the powerful Orange to an 82-79 defeat. While Syracuse has soared to a 16-1 record in dominant fashion, the Dolphins have struggled — they’re 9-6 overall and 5-5 in the Northeast-10 Conference in which they play.
“I understand it’s nice when you lose three games in a row and no one knows you lost, but the Syracuse game was both a blessing and a curse,” Evans said. “We went from being a little below that line (of respectability) to being about seven stories above it. Like anything, when you get high on anything you’re going to crash, you’re going to come down.”
“We’re not playing as good as we would have hoped,” Johnson said. “When we lost to Pace, they were chanting, ‘We want Syracuse!’ at the end of the game.”
The Orange are being touted by many as a contender for the Final Four in April. Evans will be there regardless, and he’s looking forward to it because of that one special night.
“As far as the basketball community, it’s helped Le Moyne College across a national level,” Evans said. “I don’t know if we’re going to get national recruits, but it’s helped us at least become somebody.
“I kind of think it’s funny that the one game that we won actually didn’t count. But our kids will never forget it. It will never happen again. It was a miracle.”