Albany

Syracuse basketball legend, current Orange assistant coach McNamara reflects on memories of playing in Albany, looks forward to 2022-23 season

Syracuse men's basketball assistant coach Gerry McNamara speaks with reporters prior to receiving the Inspiration Award at the 2022 Capital Region Coaches vs. Cancer Basket "Ball" at the Albany Capital Center on Thursday.
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Syracuse men's basketball assistant coach Gerry McNamara speaks with reporters prior to receiving the Inspiration Award at the 2022 Capital Region Coaches vs. Cancer Basket "Ball" at the Albany Capital Center on Thursday.

ALBANY Coming up on 20 years later, and the chants of “Let’s go Orange!” filling Albany’s downtown arena are still vivid in Gerry McNamara’s memory.

It was 2003 when McNamara, then a freshman guard for Syracuse, and his teammates stormed through Albany to win the East Region of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on the way to the program’s lone national championship, with the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight turned into de facto home games in front of an Orange-mad crowd that made the short journey west across the NYS Thruway to support the team.

“As soon as the bracket came out that year, we knew that we were in the East Region, so if we advanced to the Sweet 16 we were coming here,” said McNamara, who Thursday night was just uphill from the site of that memorable weekend at the Albany Capital Center as the recipient of the Inspiration Award at the 2022 Capital Region Coaches vs. Cancer Basket “Ball.” “We knew that would be a big advantage for us, and I just remember the chants of ‘Let’s go Orange’ here. Incredible environment.”

That year, Syracuse — the No. 3 seed in the East Region — pulled out a 79-78 win over Auburn in the Sweet 16 before dispatching No. 1 seed Oklahoma 63-47 in the regional final to send head coach Jim Boeheim’s team to New Orleans to the Final Four, where they won the national title behind Carmelo Anthony’s Most Outstanding Player effort, six 3-pointers in the first half of the national title game from McNamara and Hakim Warrick’s game-saving block to swat away Kansas’ last chance of a comeback.

In all of that magical run, McNamara said the final minutes on the court in Albany during the regional final against Oklahoma were among the most special.

“Those last six, seven minutes of that game, knowing that it’s ticking away and you’re about to head to a Final Four,” McNamara said, “there’s very few feelings like that.”

This March will mark 20 years since that championship run, and will also mark the NCAA men’s tournament’s first trip to Albany since Syracuse cut down the nets. MVP Arena will host games during the 2023 tournament’s opening weekend. That return was postponed three years, as the arena was scheduled to host games during the first weekend of the 2020 tournament, which was canceled as the sports world shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

McNamara, who has been an assistant coach at his alma mater since 2011, would love to bring this year’s Orange team back to Albany for a taste of the magic he and his teammates experienced two decades earlier.

“I hope so,” he said. “You’ve just got to take it one step at a time with this group. . .. We’re really excited about what we’re going to be and what we can become.”

If the Orange are to make a run this season, McNamara knows much of the responsibility will fall on the shoulders of former Glens Falls High School star Joseph Girard III. New York’s all-time high school boys’ basketball scoring leader is now in his fourth year at Syracuse, and will likely move from point guard to shooting guard this season following the graduation of leading scorer Buddy Boeheim.

It’s a move, McNamara said, that could serve to unlock some of the tremendous scoring ability that Girard demonstrated in his storied high school career.

“We asked him to come in and run the team, right from the first moment he got there,” McNamara said. “I don’t think we’ve unleashed him yet. . . . I think he’s going to be up there with some of the league’s leading scorers. He’s capable of leading the league in scoring. He’s that good.”

McNamara’s trip to Albany was part of his continued work with Coaches vs. Cancer, an organization he’s been involved in since arriving on campus at Syracuse in 2002 due to Jim Boeheim’s close association with the group.

Jim Boeheim was honored at the first Capital Region Basket “Ball” in 2006, with McNamara’s honor at the event — co-hosted by Siena men’s basketball coach Carmen Maciariello and his wife Laura, and UAlbany men’s basketball coach Dwayne Killings and his wife Ana — bringing things full circle.

“I’ve been part of Coaches vs. Cancer events since the moment I came to Syracuse,” he said. “I know the significance of it. I’ve had some personal, family stuff where we’ve gone through a lot over the last two-and-a-half, three years. I’ve lost people in my life and currently have people battling [cancer]. This organization is incredible. It’s the largest fundraiser of non-profit funding for cancer research in the country. Every chance I get to part a part of that, I’m going to be a part of it.”

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