Well, That Was Close: Syracuse Pulls Out Late Win Over St. Francis

Dajuan Coleman scores two of his career high-tying 14 points. - Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After defeating the Colgate Raiders Saturday night, the Syracuse Orange had a quick turnaround as they hosted the St. Francis Terriers Monday in the first round of the Maui Invitational Tournament. In Syracuse. New York. Not Hawaii.

Anyway, behind a furious defensive stand and a late comeback, the Orange were able to pull out a 56-50 victory after trailing by 4 points with 4:10 remaining. A few clutch free throws late sealed the deal, and will send the Orange off to Hawaii with a still-perfect 4-0 record on the young season.

Here are my grades for SU’s come from behind victory over the Terriers:

Head of the Class

Dajuan Coleman: It was a toss-up between Dajuan and Jerami Grant for top honors, but Coleman’s first half play single-handedly kept SU in the game. After putting up a giant bagel in the scoring column versus Colgate, Coleman bounced back with one of the best efforts of his career – ‘effort’ being the operative word. He tallied 14 points and 6 rebounds in 18 minutes, tying a career-high in scoring, and was a force on the offensive glass whenever an SU shot went up. He was also about as efficient as one can be, shooting a perfect 5-5 from the floor and 4-4 from the free throw line, most of those opportunities coming as a result of his 5 offensive rebounds. He told me after the game that he still looks to score first and foremost, but knows that he has the ability to go hard to the glass and get his points off of his teammates’ misses if things aren’t going his way down on the block.

The only knock on Coleman’s night – a rather large knock, I know – is that his scant 18 minutes were a result of his subpar post defense. St. Francis ferociously attacked the basket, which I don’t think SU was quite ready for, and had the Orange big men on their heels all night. Jim Boeheim said in his postgame news conference that the Terriers’ interior success was a result of better positioning and aggressiveness, and SU’s bigs – specifically Coleman – weren’t able to muster a counter.

Passing Grades

Jerami Grant: When Coleman’s production tailed off in the second half, Grant was there to pick up the slack with his trademark energy and hustle. His 13 points and 8 rebounds don’t tell the whole story, for it was his high-intensity defense and pressure that led to a couple of late steals and game-changing points. He also hit a couple of clutch free throws late, finishing 5-9 from the line when he started out a miserable 1-5. After the game, C.J. Fair credited Grant for his effort, noting how active he was and saying that it says a lot about Grant for him to come up big when his teammates needed a spark.

Free-Throw Shooting: I have been as vocal as anyone about the Orange’s issues at the foul line, but Monday night they certainly hit them when they needed to. SU shot a modest 18-27 (66.7%) from the line overall, but was a scorching 12-14 on freebies over the last 7 minutes when both teams were in the bonus. That deserves plenty of praise, and SU fans should hope that kind of clutch shooting will continue for the rest of the season.

Stay After School

Interior Defense: I alluded to it above, but it bears a closer look. Even considering Coleman’s excellent first half, SU got beat up in the post by a shorter team. St. Francis had 29 points in the paint, and the Orange didn’t seem to know how to defend the smaller, more active Terrier front line. Boeheim confirmed this, saying that sometimes “The toughest guys to play down there are 6'6" guys,” because “It’s easier to play a 6'10" guy… they don't have that ability to turn and face.” St. Francis’s forward tandem of Jalen Cannon (16 points, 8 rebounds) and Wayne Martin (13 points, 5 rebounds) really took it to the Orange centers, fouling out Baye Keita (2 points, 4 rebounds) and forcing the defensively challenged Coleman to the bench even though he was the team’s best first half player. Fair opined that the Orange forwards were having trouble giving help, because truthfully some assignments were missed and in other situations the wings were afraid to leave SFC’s shooters and give up wide-open threes.

C.J. Fair: I would have bet you anything that Fair’s name didn’t appear in this section all season. Goes to show you what I know. Fair had the worst night I’ve seen from him in a while. 7 points on a woeful 2-13 shooting, and a couple of bad turnovers to boot. He has had some great scoring numbers this season, but his shooting percentage and turnovers could be cause for concern if they don’t improve. As the Orange’s clear offensive leader he simply must cut down on the mistakes and shoot a better percentage, or else every game will be a struggle like Monday night. So does anyone have any thoughts on what could be bothering him? Is he pressing too much in a role that he may not used to yet?

Final Grade: C+

A win is a win, right? Sure, but even though St. Francis is probably a better team than people give them credit for, a squad with ACC championship and Final Foul aspirations like SU should aspire to do more. Now they have a few days of practice before leaving for Maui next week, where bigger tests such as Minnesota await.

For a more detailed recap of the game and Boeheim’s news conference, visit my Twitter feed by clicking here.

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