Onuaku’s NCAA Tournament fate unknown after injuring knee in loss
NEW YORK — Arinze Onuaku hobbled through the cement corridor just a few hundred feet from Syracuse’s locker room in Madison Square Garden.
Wearing a blue cast that stretched from the middle of his right thigh to the top of his ankle, the Orange’s starting center dropped his head and leaned on his crutches as assistant coach Bernie Fine came by to offer consolation.
It was his knee. Again.
‘My crystal ball broke, so I can’t really tell you any specifics,’ SU team physician Irving Raphael said of Onuaku’s injury. ‘We are hoping it’s just a strain but tomorrow we’re getting an MRI that’s already scheduled, and it’s just not in anyone’s best interest to speculate now — how good or how bad.’
Just 20 minutes beforehand, Onuaku experienced a horrifying fall with a little more than five minutes remaining in SU’s 91-84 loss in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament Thursday. Going up for a block against Georgetown center Greg Monroe, Onuaku stumbled on his return to the ground, falling to the floor, where he began writhing in pain and grabbing his right knee.
Currently, Raphael said he’s ‘cautiously optimistic,’ calling the injury a strain around that right knee. Raphael did not rule out the possibility of it being Onuaku’s right quadriceps tendon — the same tendon that he injured on his left knee prior to his redshirt season in 2006-07.
With his slow, painful departure from the floor at the Garden Thursday went any sense of stability the Orange had inside. The Hoyas used Onuaku’s absence in their favor, abusing a handicapped Orange frontcourt in a crucial five-minute stretch that solidified the Georgetown victory.
‘It was tough, especially to see a guy you really care about who’s been through multiple knee injuries like that writhing in pain on the floor. You don’t like to see that,’ SU senior guard Andy Rautins said. ‘We’re hoping for the best.’
Georgetown’s leverage was evident in Austin Freeman, as the Hoya guard’s grin illuminated the Jumbotron following a pair of his 18 total points. With Onuaku out, the Orange extended its zone into a full-court press. But Freeman, acting as the gunner, was able to beat his defender each time, catch the inbounds pass in stride and glide to the rim without a big man in the paint to stop him.
Onuaku was gone, and forward Rick Jackson was in foul trouble trying to pick up the slack. SU was at a loss to find a stopgap solution.
‘He’s a big guy,’ sophomore forward Kris Joseph said of Onuaku. ‘He creates a lot of things for us in the middle on defense and on offense. He covers a lot of that paint, so we were definitely at a slight disadvantage in the game.’
In a game where the Orange was already susceptible to the Hoyas on the inside, things became progressively worse in a frantic final stretch where Syracuse was trying desperately to get back in the game.
Missed SU shots were immediately gobbled up by the Hoyas’ frontcourt, preventing Syracuse from obtaining any second-chance points. On the other end of the floor, Georgetown continually fed its forwards and lived off points from subsequent free throws.
‘When teams find some of your weaknesses I think they just try and go off of that and they did a good job of that today,’ Jackson said. ‘Usually we keep it out of there but it was just tough keeping the ball out of there today.’
After the game, Onuaku’s teammates were left to play doctor and fill in the blanks without a clear-cut answer.
On one hand, they’ve overcome injuries within their starting core before. But with the NCAA Tournament a little more than a week away, there was no blueprint to handle this.
‘Even when I was just watching Syracuse basketball, (Onuaku) goes down but he gets right back up,’ Joseph said. ‘And when he stayed down for that long it was kind of rolling around holding his knee. …Yeah.’
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