Report Card: Syracuse Steals One From NC State, 56-55

Rakeem Christmas, jump shooter - Rich Barnes

In what is clearly an effort to thin out their overcrowded fanbase by handing out heart attacks like they’re candy, the Syracuse Orange escaped with their second improbable last-second win in two games by defeating the North Carolina State Wolfpack 56-55.

The game featured 18 lead changes and 13 ties, and ended when SU stole the ball down by one with just 13 seconds left and converted a fast break layup to take the lead for good. By the way, that sentence doesn’t come close to doing the sequence justice.

Here is my report card from SU’s ridiculous win:

Head of the Class

Rakeem Christmas: Rakeem had by far his best game in an SU uniform, tallying his first career double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) to go along with 7 blocks. He shot 4-7 from the floor, showing off an ever-increasing arsenal of moves, and was a perfect 6-6 from the charity stripe in 35 minutes of play. Perhaps most importantly, he only had three fouls, which allowed him to stay in the game when momentum was on his side. He was everything Orange fans have wanted him to be for the last two and a half seasons, and all the hard work he has clearly put in has finally started to pay off.

“It was very exciting,” Christmas said after the game, in his most non-excited voice. “I don’t have a lot of games like these, so it’s kinda nice.” That was about as much as we could get him to talk about himself, so…

“Today he made plays offensively and defensively,” added teammate C.J. Fair. “He has an ability to wall up and block the shot, and that’s real big for us.”

In a way, the injuries to Baye Keita and Dajuan Coleman have been a blessing, because they have given Christmas a de facto self esteem that he hasn’t had since he stepped onto campus. He now knows that he won’t be yanked after every mistake – major or minor – and that knowledge has done wonders for his confidence. In turn, he’s allowed himself to play ball like a man who truly knows how to play, and not a kid who’s worried about doing something wrong. Remember his freshman year, when he was the nominal starter but was routinely pulled in the first few minutes? I’m sure he does, too. That has to wear on someone’s psyche, no matter how chill he appears to be on the outside.

Passing Grades

Jerami Grant: Perhaps overlooked because of Christmas’s big night is his frontcourt mate (and backup center) Grant, who notched his own double-double with 12 points and 14 big rebounds. SU was getting manhandled in the paint early on with NC State’s Kyle Washington (14 points, 10 boards) and T.J. Warren (23 points, 4 rebound) getting a lot of good looks inside. But Grant, who had a mere 2 points in the first half, really stepped up his effort and production in the second and gave SU the boost they needed. Also, his 5 minutes at center may seem like no big deal, but they allowed Christmas some important rest on the bench and helped keep Rakeem – who is unaccustomed to playing a full game – fresh for the stretch run.

Stay After School

Team Offense: Look, we all watched it, and it wasn’t pretty. SU shot 35.2% from the floor, not the worst of the season, but they were an atrocious 2-12 (16.7%) from three. Trevor Cooney shot 3-10. Tyler “Walks on Water” Ennis? 3-10. C.J. Fair? 5-16. Grant, Christmas and defense carried the Orange, plain and simple.

After the game, Jim Boeheim was asked about his team’s offensive struggles. Here’s a smattering of what he had to say (and I’m paraphrasing on most of these):

- We have to get our offense going. Moving forward, for us to be a good team, we have to play better offense. - CJ's had a couple of bad games. I don't think he had his legs. He made 5 layups, but I don't think he made a jump shot.

- Although we had a really good win at Pittsburgh, I don't know how many times you're going to win like that.

- I think when you play 3 games in 7 days your legs are going to be a little bit short.

- NC State did a tremendous job defensively. We had some shots early that didn't go down. We couldn't get to the basket.

- Without Baye we're playing with 6 guys. If I thought we could get another guy in, I would.

- I'd rather have C.J. in for 40 minutes than another guy in there for 5. (editor’s note: hi Mr. Roberson)

But Boeheim’s best nugget was one of his last. “You don't get any trophies that matter in the regular season. The only trophies that matter are at the end of the season.” So there.

Final Grade: B

You have to think that eventually they’ll lose one of these nail-biters. You have to think that their luck will run out at some point. You have to think they can’t keep doing this week after week. But they do. And who can argue with the results?

Rakeem Christmas postgame interview 2-15-14 (via Jeremy Ryan)

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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