MBB : FINALLY FAB: Melo becomes difference-maker against SJU to propel Orange to Big East semifinals

first_img Published on March 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm NEW YORK –– Selected the Big East’s Preseason Rookie of the Year in this very venue five months ago, Fab Melo was expected to walk the walk. He was supposed to strut just like this at Madison Square Garden in March. Head higher than anyone else’s, chest out.And after a tumultuous rookie regular season, Melo was finally the hero Thursday. In No. 11 Syracuse’s gritty 79-73 win over No. 17 St. John’s in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, Melo displayed a confident cadence after every big play he made, walking tall between possessions.Knowing he can play this well on this stage allows his teammates, such as Kris Joseph and Rick Jackson, to believe SU (26-6) can now take the next step with the NCAA Tournament approaching. And knowing he has the complete backing and confidence of his veteran teammates means the world to Melo.‘Now the players are starting to trust me,’ he said.In a back-and-forth quarterfinal, fourth-seeded SU defeated fifth-seeded St. John’s (21-11) thanks to crucial late-game plays from Melo. They were unexpected acts of maturity from the first-year player, as he finished with 12 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the field. He also provided a cog in the middle of the SU zone after a first half during which St. John’s big men bullied the middle of the Orange zone and led 37-32 at halftime.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textBut paramount, in the moments that mattered, Melo became that hero the Big East’s head coaches predicted he would be back in October.‘Couldn’t ask for anything else out of him,’ said Melo’s partner down low, the senior forward Jackson. ‘I’m happy for him. I think he works hard. People criticize him and want him to be something they want him to do. But as a big guy, it takes a lot of work to just come in and be a big threat.’The quarterfinal win propels the Orange into a semifinal matchup Friday at 7 p.m. against No. 9 seeded Connecticut. The Huskies knocked off top-seeded Pittsburgh in Thursday’s opener. SU defeated then-No. 6 Connecticut 66-58 in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 2.But on Thursday, the glory was all Melo’s. For the maligned freshman that struggled to run up and down the court with the SU transition offense all year, this was vindication after a lost regular season. Throughout the game, Melo exhibited the moxie to score. One of his staunchest critics and loyal supporters, SU head coach Jim Boeheim, spoke highly of the plays Melo made late.‘Those were not easy plays,’ Boeheim said. ‘He ducked under the one, and the other one he caught and finished. I mean, he made a couple of really good offensive plays out there.’The end of the game was Melo’s best stretch. With SU trailing by one at the 3:41 mark of the second half, Melo found himself in the middle of the Red Storm matchup zone. He wafted in the middle of the zone late in the shot clock, unexpectedly received the ball, and hit Jackson wide open down low for a bucket to give SU a 68-67 lead.‘Fab went high and he was looking around, looking around,’ Jackson said. ‘I just went box to box and he just found me.’Fifteen seconds later, Melo drew an offensive foul on Justin Brownlee. He once again walked tall ahead of everyone else the other way.And with two minutes left – fresh out of a timeout– Melo sealed an SJU defender, corralled a pass, and hit the game-clinching layup. SU then held a 74-70 lead with 32 seconds left thanks to another mature play from Melo, this time on an up-and-under pump-fake layup. Moments later, Melo jetted up the court again. Only this time, sprinting. Having just sealed the game by playing ball-pressure defense on a Dwight Hardy 3-point attempt, the 7-footer bounded toward the SU student section, screaming in elation. His brother in arms – fellow freshman center Baye Moussa Keita – pounded his chest from the sidelines in salute. Another freshman, Dion Waiters, pounded Melo’s chest to congratulate him.Why not? After the turmoil of his rookie season, Melo had his first coronation in the same place he was lauded when the Big East season began in late October.‘People had big expectations for me, but I had my expectations,’ Melo said. ‘I knew I wouldn’t come here and be one and done, and everybody was saying that. I have only been playing basketball for five years. I knew, coming here, it would be hard to adjust. I just have to take my time to play my game.’[email protected] Commentscenter_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

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