Syracuse Weathers Storm, Survives Miami 49-44

"You see that circular orange thing hanging from the backboard? Try throwing the ball THROUGH that." - Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing the non-conference portion of their schedule with an unblemished record, the Syracuse Orange welcomed the Miami Hurricanes to the Carrier Dome for the school’s first official ACC basketball contest.

The game was a slow, sluggish mess from the outset, with Miami’s matchup zone challenging Syracuse’s 2-3 in a battle to see which defense could make the beautiful game of basketball as unappealing as possible. SU made a couple of clutch plays as part of an 8-0 stretch run which put them ahead for good, but not before giving the crowd of 21,839 some serious palpitations for the first 35 minutes.

Here’s my report card from courtside after SU sweated out a 49-44 win:

Head of the Class

C.J. Fair: For much of the game it seemed like Fair was the only Orange man who could buy a basket, but his scoring kept the team afloat when the rest were drowning in a sea of black and green. At the half he had 8, when no one other than Cooney had more than 4. He also had a huge jumper late in the second half, giving SU the lead for good. His stats won’t jump out at you – 15 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal in 40 minutes – but his steady hand and consistency are exactly what the Orange needed when it seemed like nothing was going right for most of the game.

“I think we’ve got good leadership with C.J. and Baye” said Trevor Cooney when asked about the team’s clutch play late. “We just have to hang in there mentally and make plays.”

Tyler Ennis agreed, adding “We have confidence coming down the stretch that we’re going to make plays.” He had a couple of his own that I’ll get to in a bit.

Passing Grades

Trevor Cooney: It’s pretty crazy that a guy shooting 50% from three on the season can go 2-12 and still have a ‘good’ game. But I think Trevor did, and here’s why. He played 39 minutes as Jim Boeheim shortened his bench to only seven players, which might be the most Trevor's played in his career. He was 5-6 from the free throw line, including two big ones with 25 seconds left to put SU up by two possessions. And he didn’t seem to be flummoxed when his shot didn’t go down, as he told me after the game.

“All I was thinking about was making foul shots,” he said. “I just concentrated on making those shots. I wasn’t thinking of the threes I missed before. I got up good shots today, shots I normally make.”

Rakeem Christmas: After being chastised by Boeheim for his rebounding and defense vs. Eastern Michigan, Christmas came out with much more energy vs. Miami and had his best overall game in quite some time. He had perhaps the play of the game when he stuffed a Miami lob attempt with less than two minutes to go and SU only up 3. He also had 3 of his 7 rebounds in the final two minutes when the Orange defense tightened up and sealed the win. I think most Syracuse fans would take 8 points, 7 boards and a block in 28 minutes over the 15 points and 3 rebounds Christmas had on Tuesday. Hell, if the three SU centers together can just play defense, rebound, and make their layups this team will be really tough to beat.

Stay After School

Team Offense: Miami’s defense was suffocating at times, with their aforementioned matchup zone that stifled any attempt by SU to get into an offensive rhythm. If you’ve never heard of it before, a matchup zone typically means the defense initially picks up in man-to-man, but then starts to switch as the offensive players move around the court. The only catch is that players don’t typically switch high-low, keeping the guards up top and bigs on the blocks. Plus, Miami plays a 3-2, which gives them more of a presence on the upper perimeter at the expense of bodies on the baseline.

Much like Syracuse, Miami features several tall and athletic wing players, who present plenty of arms and hands to try to get passes through or dribble around on their way to the rim. When a shooter like Cooney is off, and he was certainly off on Saturday, that makes it even harder for the other players to get good looks at the basket because SU loses their one perimeter player who can draw a crowd when he gets the ball.

“It had to do with their zone a little bit,” said Ennis when asked about SU’s lack of offensive flow. They’re going to take away shots. They made us play through it.”

“It was difficult,” echoed Cooney. “You might think you have a passing lane or a shot, and they take it away.”

Fair and Ennis were able to penetrate a bit for a couple of looks at the rim, but Jerami Grant was stifled for the most part (2-7, 5 points) aside from an extremely clutch 16-footer he splashed late in the game. If it wasn’t for Christmas’s timely rebounding and a couple of sneaky Ennis layups, the outcome could have gone in a completely different direction.

Make no mistake, this was an ugly game to watch. Miami had a good game plan and for the most part succeeded in keeping SU for doing what they wanted to do. The Orange shot only 36% from the floor, and a frigid 20% (3-15) from three. However, they did hit 12-14 from the free throw line, and every one of those freebies was needed in this rock fight of a game.

Final Grade: B

I’ll give SU a solid B, mostly for persevering when other teams may have gotten frustrated. It goes to show that even though Miami is rebuilding after their ACC regular season and tournament titles last year, few conference opponents will truly be walkovers for the Orange this year. Well, except for probably Boston College.

After the game, Boeheim said there wasn’t any real status update on center Dajuan Coleman, who missed his second consecutive game with knee pain. Boeheim wouldn’t comment on if Coleman could have played if needed, but did say Dajuan was “feeling better” and they’re going to give him another day and see how he feels. So, I guess he’ll be a game time decision again before SU’s next game at Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.

Boeheim mentioned that Tyler Roberson had a good outing vs. Eastern Michigan, but he didn’t think it would be fair to throw the freshman into a spot against Miami where he would have to make reads and reactions on this strange defense. That’s likely why we saw Michael Gbinije get a couple of minutes at small forward, and why Boeheim played four of his starters 38 minutes or more with Gbinije getting 4 and Baye Keita the other 12.

Click here to watch Rakeem Christmas speak to the media following the game Saturday afternoon.

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