March Madness rewind: Carmelo Anthony delivers Jim Boeheim, Syracuse first national championship


Syracuse had been a consistent NCAA Tournament participant for years under Jim Boeheim, but the program couldn’t quite get over the hump until a hot-shot freshman from Baltimore helped lift the Orange to a national title.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim entered the 2003 season as a brilliant tactician who had suffered plenty of March heartbreak in the past. That all changed when Carmelo Anthony came to campus.

The closest Syracuse came to a title under Boeheim was in 1987 when Keith Smart‘s last-second jumper broke hearts across Western New York to steal the Orangemen’s championship and bring it to Indiana. The Orangemen got back to the title game again in 1996, falling to Kentucky in East Rutherford, marking the school’s closest run at a championship.

2002 was a down year by Syracuse standards, with the program dropping nine of 13 games at one point to miss the NCAA Tournament, finishing in fourth place in the NIT. That offseason was also a turbulent one for Syracuse as two of the Orangemen’s top players left the program. Deshaun Williams transferred to Iona and James Thues went to Detroit.

Everything changed with the arrival of Melo.

Scouts around the country had been teased by Anthony’s potential during his high school career at Oak Hill Academy where he famously led his team to victory over LeBron James‘ St. Vincent-St. Mary’s squad. Anthony could have followed the path of prep-to-pros Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady but decided prior to his senior year to commit to Syracuse.

The departures of Williams and Thues gave Anthony, along with fellow freshman Gerry McNamara, a chance to join the starting lineup immediately. The pair teamed with returning senior Kueth Duany as well as sophomores Hakim Warrick and Craig Forth to form a very young starting five.

It was an inauspicious debut, falling to Memphis at Madison Square Garden in the season opener, but Anthony made his presence felt scoring 27 points in the defeat, a record for a Syracuse freshman in a single game and a performance the AP described as “a one-man show.”

That record didn’t stand long as Anthony broke it one game later, putting up 28 in a win over Valparaiso. It was a sign the freshman was special. Anthony led the Orangemen in scoring with 22.2 points per game and a team-best 10 rebounds per game. He did it all for Syracuse.

But factoring in McNamara (13.3 ppg, 4.3 assists per game), Warrick (14.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and fellow freshman Billy Edelin (9.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 apg), it gave the Orangemen as dynamic a young roster as college basketball had seen since The Fab Five at Michigan in 1991-1992.

Teams around the country struggled to contain Anthony, who helped lead the Orangemen to a 23-4 regular-season record before a tough loss in the Big East Tournament semifinals to UConn. Syracuse’s resume was good enough to earn a No. 3 seed in the East Region, where a potentially huge advantage awaited the Orangemen in the regional: the right to play for a trip to the Final Four in Albany.

Wins over Manhattan and Oklahoma State got the Orangemen to Albany, where they looked like they were set to cruise into the Elite Eight by racing past No. 10 Auburn. Syracuse built a huge 17-point lead only to watch it nearly fade away thanks to a massive surge from the Tigers who took advantage of poor Syracuse foul shooting by making some massive three-pointers.

The hero of that game was the Orangemen’s lone senior, Duany, who nailed four clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds to ensure a last-second three from the Tigers couldn’t tie the game. Surviving that game gave the young Orangemen a massive confidence boost for their Elite Eight matchup against Oklahoma, leading to a rout of the Sooners to send Syracuse back to the Final Four for the first time since 1996.

Carmelo Anthony (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)
Carmelo Anthony (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images) /

First up in New Orleans was a matchup with another Big 12 school in Texas, the last top seed left in the field which featured a pair of future NBA players in Royal Ivey and T.J. Ford. With a big stage in the Final Four, Anthony delivered his best performance of the season, pouring in 33 points and grabbing 14 rebounds to help the Orangemen get back to the championship game.

Anthony’s 33-point outburst set a record for most points by a freshman in Final Four history. Boeheim was well aware he was getting something very surreal out of his young team, saying after the win “they’re unusual freshmen. I felt that from the beginning.”

McNamara was a witness to the one-man show Anthony was putting on.

“Carmelo’s the key,” McNamara said via

Then-Texas coach Rick Barnes had no answer for Anthony.

“Every point they score, you almost attribute it to Carmelo,” Barnes said. “He makes you help. He makes you rotate. If you don’t get all five guys rotating the way they need to, they’re going to come up with something.”

That record-breaking performance set the stage for a National Championship Game between Syracuse and Kansas. A game that also featured another snake-bitten coach seeking his first championship in Roy Williams. The veteran Jayhawks were favored by five but the young Orangemen weren’t intimidated, racing out to an 11-point lead at the half.

Kansas roared back in the second half to cut the deficit to two in the final minute to set the stage for Syracuse’s One Shining Moment.

Shaky free throw shooting from the Orangemen was an issue once again with Warrick missing a pair, giving Jayhawks’ guard Michael Lee a chance to take the lead with a three-point attempt. Warrick, seeking redemption for his misses at the charity stripe, made a leaping block with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.

Syracuse made only one of two on the other end, giving Kansas one last chance to tie it up, but Kirk Hinrich‘s desperation three came up short, giving Boeheim and Syracuse the national championship. Anthony played through a bruised lower back but still had 20 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven assists in the title game and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

That was the only year Anthony played at Syracuse.

An emotional Anthony didn’t want to leave Syracuse after one year but he, Boeheim and everyone knew it was best for him to go to the NBA.

“I got one year of experience,” Anthony said. “I came in, played, and won a national championship.”

“I was a leader and was there for my teammates, but I have to move on, there really is nothing more I can get out of college.”

Anthony was the No. 3 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, behind James and Darko Milicic.

Boeheim and Syracuse are still in search of a second national championship. As every year passes without a title, Anthony’s legacy grows larger. He was only there for one year but no year ever meant so much to Boeheim, the program and the fans of Syracuse basketball. Anthony too.

Syracuse has had a few deep Tournament runs since but they haven’t returned to the title game since Anthony’s heroics in 2003.

It was a magical year for basketball in upstate New York and despite a stellar NBA career that will end with him in the Hall of Fame, Anthony will forever be known for his role in living up to the hype and delivering Boeheim and Syracuse their only championship so far.

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