So, where was this Syracuse Orange basketball team all season? Over the last week, Syracuse has knocked off Louisville, then ranked No. 12 in the nation, and tonight the Orange go into South Bend and completely shut down one of the most potent offensive teams in the country, toppling No. 9-ranked Notre Dame by a final score of 65-60. Oh, and they did it in large part without Rakeem Christmas.
Syracuse improves to 18-10 overall and 9-6 in ACC play, guaranteeing they’ll finish at least .500 in conference and keeping hope alive for a 20 win season. Suddenly, this is looking like a team that, were a self-imposed postseason ban not in place, could not just make the NCAA Tournament, but make a little noise in it as well. Oh well, c’est la vie.
First things first, the biggest difference in tonight’s game was the fact that Notre Dame was simply atrocious from long distance. There’s no other way to tell the story of this game. The Irish, who shoot better than 40% from three point range as a team, hit just 3-of-22 attempts against the Syracuse zone. A lot of that was an active zone, some of it was late desperation threes by Notre Dame, and a bit of it was simply Notre Dame failing to knock down some early, wide open attempts. In the game’s opening minutes, the Irish had three or four wide open looks that they just could not knock down.
As soon as that started happening, suddenly this game – which on paper, should have been one of the worst matchups of the year for Syracuse – was looking very winnable. Not that Syracuse was faring much better offensively, but unlike the Irish, Syracuse relies more on pounding the ball inside to get points. That means there are multiple opportunities at shots on putbacks, which you sometimes get with three point misses but not as frequently as you do on interior misses.
The other amazing part of this game, alongside Notre Dame’s shooting woes, was the fact that Syracuse won this game on the backs of some very, very unexpected contributors. I already mentioned that Christmas sat for long stretches, first when he picked up his third foul in the first half, and then when he fouled out with about five and a half minutes remaining. At one point during the first half, the lineup on the court for Syracuse was Kaleb Joseph, Buss Patterson, BJ Johnson, Tyler Roberson, and Chino Obokoh. That’s a lineup that most fans only ever expected to see if Syracuse was either leading or trailing by 25. Instead, they were getting significant minutes together, on the road, against a top 10 team…and they extended the lead to double digits.
That is truly staggering, when you think about it. Syracuse has gotten such limited production from its bench all year, but suddenly the light seems to be coming on for the guys who have been buried down there on the far side of Gerry McNamara for most of the year. In particular, BJ Johnson looks to be turning into the kind of player we all hoped he would be based on his size and skill set. Now that his jumper is starting to fall, he looks like a completely different player. He’s not just hitting shots from the perimeter, he’s suddenly taking the ball to the rack and finishing, hitting free throws, and even getting on the boards – both offensively, and defensively. Rakeem Christmas may have posted a double double with 14 points and 12 boards, and gone over the 1,000 point mark in the process, but if anyone gets a game ball for tonight it’s BJ Johnson.
Now, this wasn’t a perfect game for the Orange by any stretch. Syracuse turned the ball over way too much, including eight first half giveaways. According to the box score, they finished with 13. But here’s the thing: when it mattered most, they actually started taking care of the ball. I remember glancing at the box score on ESPN.com with about seven minutes left, and noting that the Orange had given the ball away 13 times, already two more turnovers than Notre Dame forces per game, on average. And then, amazingly, if that box score is accurate, we didn’t turn the ball over again for the rest of the game.
Kaleb Joseph? Zero turnovers. Trevor Cooney? Zero turnovers. Buss Patterson? One turnover. Now, Rakeem Christmas was credited with six turnovers, but some of those probably should have been given to other people, since a couple of them were passes that were difficult to handle. Still, the way Syracuse took care of the basketball down the stretch, and the way they actually made some clutch free throws (in particular, Michael Gbinije and Johnson) was the big difference. And let’s not forget about Chino Obokoh, who came up with a huge offensive rebound that ultimately led to a deep, back breaking three pointer from Trevor Cooney late in the game and then grabbed a defensive rebound in the final seconds to really seal the victory.
You can’t really talk about tonight’s game without giving some credit to Trevor Cooney, either. Cooney was basically invisible for the majority of the game, his bad back clearly bothering him. But before Rakeem fouled out, there was one play in particular that seemed to reinvigorate Cooney, when he led a break and threw a lob to his old AAU teammate for an easy bucket to help Syracuse maintain control. He added an insanely tough fadeaway corner jumper with the shot clock expiring, and then after hitting the three after the offensive board by Obokoh, followed that up immediately by grabbing a defensive board, taking the ball coast to coast, and finishing strong at the rim.
Say what you will about Trevor Cooney, but never say the kid doesn’t have heart. And that’s what really stands out about this Syracuse team, game after game. Even after the frustrating loss to Pittsburgh, the heart was evident in the way the Orange battled back from a double digit deficit to nearly pull out the win. I’ve mentioned before that all this team really has to play for at this point is pride. It would appear they’ve got that in bunches.
This was a great win for Syracuse, and quite frankly a win I never expected them to be able to get. I am beyond thrilled to be proven wrong tonight.