WASHINGTON D.C. -- It ended with a whimper. Disappointment and tears followed, but that's to be expected.
Fourth-seed Syracuse was too good, by far.
Top-seed Indiana was too submissive, tentative, and rattled, by far.
That's a shame.
All things were possible at 10 o'clock Thursday night for this Sweet 16 showdown at the Verizon Center. By midnight at the Verizon Center, it was over. The 61-50 score reflected a futility that rocked the Big Ten's best team.
“It's going to take me a long time to get over this,” junior guard Victor Oladipo said. “I apologize to Hoosier Nation. They wanted it. This is disappointing because we feel like we let them down.
“It sucks, to be honest with you. This is a tough loss. We had no intention of playing like that. That's how it happened. We have to learn from it.”
You work so hard for so long, you achieve so much (a 29-7 record, a Big Ten championship, 10 weeks ranked No. 1) and you deliver this kind of first-half performance?
It can't happen -- not from a championship-caliber team, which IU certainly seemed to be.
That, as it turned out, was an illusion.
Syracuse, which might end up as a championship team, made it so.
“Our defense has been good all year and tonight it was really good,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “We made some really good defensive plays against them and, offensively, we wanted our big guards to go at their little guards.”
Syracuse (29-9) intimidated with size and length. IU had no answer and, it seemed, no clue.
So much for three days of preparation.
In truth, no preparation could get the Hoosiers ready for the Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone.
“Nobody we played has a zone like that,” guard Yogi Ferrell said. “It was hard to prepare for. We don't have guys as long as they are. We didn't see until we got out there. That was toughest part.
“They're so long, you think something is open and it's not. They can get to it.”
That was personified by IU senior guard Jordan Hulls. He had spent his career proving doubters wrong when they said he was too small and too slow for elite basketball. His 1,318 career points, 363 career assists and 46.0 percent career three-point shooting reflected that.
But against Syracuse, he was overmatched. So was Ferrell. They combined for no points on 0-for-8 shooting.
But then, other than Oladipo, who went 5-for-6 from the field for a team-leading 16 points, every Hoosier struggled.
“Nobody else plays 40 minutes of zone like they do,” Hulls said. “We weren't moving the ball as well as we needed to. We were turning it over. We didn't get stops. It wasn't a lack of effort. We didn't execute it the way we needed to.”
The Hoosiers were rattled almost from the opening tip. They had no recognizable offense. Turnovers came almost as fast as missed shots. Even worse, they allowed the offense-challenged Orange to find their shooting rhythm.
IU fell behind 11-3 and then 18-7. Coach Tom Crean called timeouts that made no difference. The deficit swelled to 18.
As bad as the offense was, it was the defense that was a real killer. Syracuse scored efficiently and effectively. It scored from inside and out. It didn't have any significant scoring droughts. Guard Michael Carter-Williams was a one-man wrecking crew with 12 first-half tone-setting points. He finished with a career high 24, six more than his previous best, which came against not so might Central Connecticut State.
The Hoosiers found enough life to end the half down 12. Still, their 22 first-half points were a season low, three fewer than the home disaster against Ohio State to end the regular season.
Louisville shredded Syracuse in the second half of the Big East tourney title game with full-court pressure, but IU lacked the Cardinals' 90-feet ferocity. It would have to rally the old-fashioned way -- bang inside, convert from in close, take care of the ball and defend with purpose.
IU needed six second-half minutes to cut that deficit in half. Syracuse needed two minutes to regain that 12-point edge.
Momentum was gone. So, as it turned out, was the comeback.
“We're proud of what we accomplished,” Ferrell said, “but the goal was the Final Four. We came up short. It's disappointing.”
Now the Hoosiers appear poised for rebuilding. Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston have used up their college eligibility. Oladipo and forward Cody Zeller could head for the NBA.
Crean will have a young team led by Ferrell and Will Sheehey, plus bring in another outstanding recruiting class. The Hoosiers likely won't be national title contenders next year, but they won't be Big Ten fodder, either. Crean has the program in far better shape than that.
But that's a topic for another day.