Jason Angel, one of the many Syracuse fans living in Raleigh, left the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Feb. 29 after the Orange’s loss to North Carolina and figured that would be the last time the two teams played this season.
Angel, who grew up in Whitney Point, N.Y., and moved to the Triangle 16 years ago, didn’t even know if his favorite team would get into the NCAA tournament.
“I figured there was a 10 percent chance,” Angel, 42, said. “I really didn’t think we were going to get in.”
Angel, and Orange fans across the Triangle, are glad Syracuse proved him wrong. The Orange will meet No. 1 seed North Carolina on Saturday in the Final Four in Houston.
Syracuse has more than 4,600 alumni in the state of North Carolina, according to its alumni office. They don’t have specific numbers for the Triangle but given the influx of people who moved in waves from the state with either IBM in the 1980s and then Nortel in the 1990s, there’s a strong pocket of Orange fans in the region.
Most of them were like Angel after the Orange’s 75-70 loss at UNC, wondering if a 19-13 record would be enough on Selection Sunday.
But the Orange got in and has kept on winning and surprising. Syracuse handled Dayton in the first round and then caught a break when upstart Middle Tennessee knocked off No. 2 seed Michigan State.
The Orange, the No. 10 seed in the Midwest region, had no problems with Middle Tennessee in the second round, winning 75-50 to get to the Sweet 16.
Then the Orange scored unlikely comeback wins over Gonzaga and top-seed Virginia to get to the Final Four.
Syracuse is the first No. 10 seed to reach the Final Four and first double-digit seed from a major conference to reach the Final Four since LSU did in 1986.
“It has been a surprise but well deserved,” said Meghan Smith, 40, a Syracuse fan who lives in Raleigh.
The surprise also brings something of a dilemma for Smith, whose family from Wellsville, N.Y., was part of the IBM transplant movement to the state in the 1980s.
Smith’s older brother, Chris, went to Carolina. She stuck with her upstate New York roots and kept her allegiance with Syracuse. The rest of the family? Firmly on Chris’ adopted state side, except her 12-year-old son Liam.
That means Meghan and Liam will be watching Saturday’s game between the Tar Heels and Orange without the rest of the family.
“I’m very superstitious,” Smith said. “I didn’t watch the other games with them so I don’t know if I’d welcome them.”
Sarah Bernart, who got her MBA from Syracuse in 1991, has faced a similar problem at work this week at North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park.
“I’m bleeding Orange in a Carolina blue office,” Bernart, 52, said.
Actually, the toughest part of Syracuse’s success for these Syracuse fans has been watching their brackets blowup.
Bernart only had the Orange winning one round. Angel at least had them in the Sweet 16.
“I take them every year to make the Final Four,” Angel said. “This is the first time I didn’t take them past the Sweet 16. Maybe this will be a new trend for me.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio