Well, that was just dumb. The whole thing. From start to finish, the game between Syracuse and Virginia Tech was a one we probably all want to scrub from our memories. Syracuse had basically zero business coming back and winning, but that’s exactly what happened as the undersized and over-matched Hokies started giving the ball away like it was candy on Halloween, and Syracuse fought back from a 13 point second half deficit to steal the 72-70 win.
There was a little bit of good, but mostly bad, that we can talk about when it comes to this game. Before the game, I had wondered if the eight day layoff would be too long, and the Orange would come out with a week’s worth of rust to shake off. Turns out that was an insult to rust, because the first 35 minutes or so saw Syracuse playing about as poorly as they have all year.
Syracuse was pretty poor in just about every facet of the game for most of the night, letting Virginia Tech – which entered the night as the worst rebounding team in the ACC – own the glass in the first half on their way to holding a 24-19 rebounding edge in the first 20 minutes of action. Meanwhile, Syracuse’s defense was ripped apart early and often, and it wasn’t because of any elaborate zone offense that Buzz Williams was employing, either. Syracuse simply let guys get just inside the free throw line, and the Orange were torched from that one area for the bulk of the game as Rakeem Christmas failed to get up and contest the shots and Kaleb Joseph, Trevor Cooney, and Buss Patterson failed to pinch down and take away those shots.
The rotations were pretty abysmal as well, in particular from players like Joseph and Tyler Roberson, leading to far too many open three pointers and Jim Boeheim treating Joseph, specifically, like a yo-yo as soon as he would consistently let three point shooters get open. Word all week was that the main emphasis on defense was defending the perimeter and not letting the generally hot shooting Hokies get many clean looks, but apparently those lessons didn’t take. Virginia Tech bricked its first three long range attempts, but proceeded to hit eight of its next nine triples.
It was also discouraging to see Rakeem Christmas so frequently ignored on the offensive end of the court. The Orange pounded the ball inside early and often, and while Christmas struggled to knock down his shots against the physical, if smaller Hokies, the team pretty quickly started going away from their senior, who leads the ACC in scoring. The offense started to focus more on perimeter shots, despite the fact that no one was actually knocking them down. Gbinije hit a pair late in the first half to help the Orange take a 34-30 lead into the break, but it was an unsettling trend and, at the end of the day, just a lot of bad offense being played.
The other big problem tonight was the continued struggle from the free throw line, as the Orange hit just 16-of-29 free throws as a team. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that, when Gbinije drew a foul with 18.9 seconds left and the Orange trailing by two, I fully expected a pair of misses from the junior swingman.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. And by the way the crowd erupted when Gbinije hit the second free throw to tie things up, so was the Carrier Dome crowd. Gbinije knocked down his free throws when they mattered most, and came up huge in the final moments after Cooney forced a Virginia Tech turnover. While basically everyone watching was screaming for Christmas to get the ball in those final seconds, particularly since Virginia Tech didn’t have anyone taller than 6-foot-5 on the court and Christmas was also the most likely candidate to knock down free throws, Gbinije got the ball and delivered, swishing a 10 footer to give the Orange the win.
Gbinije and Cooney each finished with 18 points, and the duo came up with some key defensive plays as the Orange threw a full court press at Virginia Tech starting with about six minutes left in the game. The pressure defense was easily dissected by the guard oriented Hokies at first, but the pressure slowly started intensifying and Virginia Tech wilted, leading to turnovers and rushed shots that allowed Syracuse to get back into the game and eventually get the win.
Another big part of that successful press was Buss Patterson, who continued to struggle with his offense but was instrumental in deflecting passes and creating general havoc in the press while also getting out on the break and finishing strong on his way to eight points off the bench. Christmas had a strong all around game, scoring 15 points to go along with 12 boards, five blocks, and four steals. However, it was a little distressing to see Christmas basically get frozen out of the offense for a long stretch in the second half, going nearly 10 minutes without attempting a field goal starting at the 11:24 mark. That’s especially troublesome considering, again, this is the ACC’s leading scorer we’re talking about, and Syracuse had a huge size advantage against the Hokies. This is a game most of us would have expected to see Rakeem go off for 25 points.
Honestly, at the end of the day a win is a win, and Syracuse now sits at 15-7 overall and 6-3 in conference play. But frankly, that didn’t feel like a win to me, and I’m sure a lot of other Orange fans feel the same way. There are some extremely troubling signs being flashed by this Syracuse team as they get ready for the toughest stretch of the season, including the fact that at this point, Trevor Cooney’s legs just look completely gone. He was leaving the bulk of his shots well short, which is to be expected when you come into the game having played 163 of the previous 165 possible minutes. Oh, and if you were wondering – yes, he played all 40 minutes again tonight. So did Gbinije, and so did Christmas.
At this point, I’ll be more amazed if this team finishes the season with five players who can still walk than if they somehow find their way to 20 victories.