This Syracuse University basketball team may not have a postseason to play for, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean they’re going to just give up on the season. That seemed pretty clear against Duke on Saturday, and it was made even more apparent tonight when the Orange came from behind and wound up dominating the No. 12-ranked Louisville Cardinals over the final 10 minutes to top Rick Pitino’s squad 69-59 in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse is now 17-9 overall and 8-5 in the ACC, and the sad thing is that with the way the team has performed in recent games, they’re actually starting to look like an NCAA Tournament team. Alas, it’s not to be, but it still feels damn good to take out a nationally ranked opponent, especially when that opponent is Louisville. After all, as I mentioned earlier today, the Cardinals have had Syracuse’s number over the last decade, with tonight marking just the fifth time in 14 meetings that the Orange have come out on top.
This game was a little bit of a rollercoaster emotionally for Syracuse fans, with the Orange struggling to get any real offense going early on. Trevor Cooney hit his first three pointer of the night but, after that, played arguably the worst game of his Syracuse career. The junior shooting guard finished the game hitting just 1-of-10 shots overall, including 1-of-9 from deep, to finish with three points, and he struggled on defense. He wasn’t alone, of course, as Terry Rozier and Quentin Snider repeatedly sliced through the top of the 2-3 zone, getting into the paint at will and creating for themselves as well as their teammates.
The inability to stop guard penetration was frustrating, exacerbated by the fact that the Orange were failing to get much going on offense. Syracuse shot just 39% from the field in the first half, due largely to the fact that the Orange seemed to think the only available shots were either three pointers (which they weren’t making) or dunks (which they were rarely getting).
That all changed midway through the second half, though. The last three pointer attempted by the Orange came on a Cooney miss at the 13:38 mark, and from then on Syracuse seemed to realize it could exploit the young, thin, and foul plagued front line of the Cardinals, and started pounding the ball into the lane. Wayne Blackshear fouled out with no points and no rebounds, and Rakeem Christmas repeatedly got good post position and either converted on jump hooks and dunks, or kept drawing fouls on the Louisville defenders.
And really, the change in offensive philosophy was the key in Syracuse turning things around tonight. The Orange trailed 43-40 with less than 14 minutes to go, and Syracuse started pounding it in to Christmas over and over. Christmas scored 14 of the next 18 Syracuse points as the Orange asserted themselves and took a 58-52 lead with 5:08 left, and the game was never truly in question again after Tyler Roberson finished an alley-oop from Michael Gbinije to make it 60-52 with 4:34 on the clock.
Christmas finished with 29 points, hitting 9-of-10 field goals and 11-of-13 free throws, in an exceptionally efficient offensive display. He also added eight boards and four blocks while once again showing a great ability to play smart defense and keep hitting the glass despite foul trouble. Meanwhile, Gbinije quietly scored 18, hitting three treys and adding six assists and five rebounds, continuing his streak of excellent games. If Christmas is the team’s MVP this season, Gbinije has clearly emerged as the absolute unsung hero for this squad.
Speaking of unsung heroes, Tyler Roberson added another strong performance against an elite forward, bodying up against Montrezl Harrell and finishing with 13 points and nine boards. The Orange were particularly effective in the second half against Harrell, who had 12 points at halftime but finished with just 15 to go along with nine boards. Foul trouble for the Louisville star played a big factor in that, of course, but credit Syracuse’s big men for containing him and Blackshear tonight.
One of the most encouraging numbers of the night is seven. That’s how many – or should I say few? – turnovers Syracuse committed against Louisville. Again, that was aided by the fact that Louisville’s starting point guard, Chris Jones, was out due to a suspension, but that doesn’t change the fact that Syracuse was able to take care of the ball against a high pressure, full court defense that typically creates a lot of turnovers and, by extension, points off of turnovers. Joseph, Gbinije, Cooney, and Buss Patterson combined for just two turnovers. That’s a hell of a performance from your quartet of guards against a team like Louisville.
And I have to give credit to Kaleb Joseph, who still makes plenty of mistakes but is growing up before our eyes. After getting a quick hook for taking and missing an early three pointer, and getting yelled at for failing to rotate on Rozier for an open three, the freshman showed plenty of poise handling the ball and, when it mattered most, creating a great shot opportunity and converting from 12 feet against the much larger Chinanu Onuaku, knocking down the short jumper after a great ball fake to push the Syracuse lead to 62-54 with 1:47 left to play.
This isn’t exactly a worldbeater of a Louisville team, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re ranked No. 12 in the nation (albeit, not for very much longer). Rick Pitino has often had Jim Boeheim’s number over the years, but tonight, Syracuse had Louisville’s. We just had to get to the point where we remembered we’ve got an All-American at center, who was clearly more than a little pissed off following a below average performance against Jahlil Okafor and Duke on Saturday.
Syracuse may not have much to play for at this point, but they sure as hell are playing their hearts out anyway. I had a feeling we would pull off the upset tonight, and boy do I love being right.