JOHN KEKIS,AP Sports Writer
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — From the back roads of Senegal to the middle of Jim Boeheim’s stifling zone defense, Syracuse’s Baye Moussa Keita is ready for the big stage that is the Final Four.
“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You just have to enjoy it,” the wiry, 6-foot-10 junior said Tuesday before Syracuse (30-9) departed for Atlanta and Saturday’s national semifinal against Michigan (30-7). “That’s what I’m going to do.”
It’s been a long journey.
At 14, Keita (whose first name is pronounced BYE and last KEY’-tah) stood 6-foot-6 and excelled at soccer when the coach of his youth team encouraged him to attend a small clinic so officials from SEEDS — Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal — could see him. They liked what they saw and Keita left home the next year to attend an academy that would prepare him for the next step — the chance to go to the United States and, through basketball, have a chance at college.
After graduating from the academy, Keita headed for the U.S. and earned a basketball scholarship at Syracuse. He’s been a work in progress from the start under Boeheim, but it didn’t take long for him to display his potential.
In just his second game for the Orange, Keita had 15 rebounds and made 3 of 5 shots from the floor in 17 minutes in an 86-67 win over Canisius.
“He’s just disruptive. He plays so hard,” said assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who works with the Orange’s big men. “It’s like he has a shot of adrenaline on every possession, how hard he plays. His energy level is unparalleled. He makes things happen.”
Syracuse, which lost four of its last five games in the regular season, has done an about-face in the postseason on the strength of its defense. Keita and Rakeem Christmas have made the going difficult in the paint for opponents.
The Orange surge started after Seton Hall torched them early in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Pirates built an early 10-point lead with a flurry of 3-pointers before Syracuse awoke.
Behind the active play of Keita, Syracuse closed the half on a 9-2 run to tie it at 34-all and took control with a 19-2 spurt late in the game. Two days later, Keita played a career-high 41 minutes and scored 13 points in an overtime win over Georgetown.
“When you lose four out of five games at the end of the year, it’s not good for your confidence,” Boeheim said. “I thought the Seton Hall game really turned it around. They smacked us early, and we just came right back at them and won the game and played well the rest of the time in New York.
“He (Keita) brings tremendous energy to our defense,” Boeheim said. “Both our centers are very good on the defensive end, and that’s where we need them to be good.”
In Syracuse’s 55-39 victory over Big East rival Marquette in Saturday’s East Region final, the third-seeded Golden Eagles shot 22.6 percent overall (12 of 53) and 12.5 percent (3 of 24) from long range.
“As a team, we just came together,” said Keita, who had 11 points in a third-round win over California. “We’ve been playing hard and smart at the same time.”
Hard to argue there.
In Syracuse’s four tournament victories, opponents have shot 61 of 211 (28.9 percent) and 14 of 91 (15.3 percent) from behind the arc.
Even the head coach is impressed. “I doubt that that’s ever been done,” Boeheim said.
The long arms of the Orange also have blocked 25 shots and nabbed 33 steals.
“When we come in, we just try to hold the paint,” Christmas said. “And when someone comes in, we just try to block shots and take charges, try to rebound and get putbacks.”
Keita’s emergence has come despite not starting a single game since his freshman year.
“As a junior, I know I have a big role to play. I’m the oldest we have,” said Keita, whose effervescent smile can light up any room. “I knew I’d have to play big minutes in big games. I was ready for that. I just decided to pick up the energy and play hard.”
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