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Cooney's Career-High "Bails Out" Orange as Syracuse tops Cornell

The Syracuse Orange survived a scare from Cornell and pulled out an 82-60 victory to open the 2013-14 college basketball season.

Trevor Cooney > Cornell.
Trevor Cooney > Cornell.
Brett Carlsen
The Big Red led the Orange for practically the entire first half, and SU needed a career-best effort from an unlikely source to get the win.

Here is my report card from Friday night’s clash of longtime Central New York rivals:

Head of the Class: Trevor Cooney

This one’s a no-brainer. In the words of Jim Boeheim, Cooney “bailed us out” with a career-high 27 points on 10-12 from the floor (7-8 from three) to go along with 4 steals, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 28 minutes of play. The Orange sleepwalked through most of the first half, and it was a pair of Cooney threes in the final two minutes that helped the Orange close to within 6 after being down by as many as 14.

In the second half Cooney went bananas, hitting three triples and a breakaway dunk in a five minute span to turn the tide and send SU to an eventual runaway win. He looked as confident as I have ever seen him, and the leaning, fading shots that always came up short last year seem to be a thing of the past - at least for now.

After the game, Boeheim complimented Cooney on his defense, saying that it’s what really keeps him in the game. Cooney added that it helps his confidence to know that he will get solid minutes this year and won’t have to look over his shoulder every time he makes a mistake. That’s something that James Southerland said early last year, and I think it rings true for every player who has started his career as a backup and had to earn his way into the lineup.

Passing Grades

Rakeem Christmas: After a lackluster exhibition output versus Holy Family, Christmas bounced back with a solid effort versus Ryerson last week, and continued to build on that Friday night. He scored 12 points on a very efficient 4-5 from the field (and 4-5 from the line) in 27 minutes, and did it in a variety of ways. He posted up and drew a foul, he worked a high-low with Baye Keita for a dunk, and even showed some versatility with a left-handed drive (which drew another foul) and a short jumper. Rakeem could stand to improve upon his 4 rebound output, but if he can perform like this on a consistent basis who knows what sort of force he could become.

C.J. Fair: Fair scored perhaps the most pedestrian 19 points I have seen in a while. He shot better than 50% (6-11), was nearly perfect from the line (6-7), and added 3 boards and 3 assists, but did it all in the shadow of Cooney’s big night. Fair did commit 7 turnovers – a couple of them coming by way of offensive fouls - to which Boeheim commented that Fair was “trying to do too much” and needed to be more patient and let the game come to him.

Stay After School

SU’s Press Defense: For the second game in a row, the Orange full-court press looked vulnerable to small, quick guards. On several occasions Cornell’s ballhandlers would zoom up the middle of the court, easily racing past any SU trap before it could arrive. It was only through the efforts of the Orange back line that Cornell didn’t convert more shots off of the broken press – Keita and the forwards did a great gob covering for their guard teammates and keeping the Big Red from running away with the game.

One of the downsides of Christmas playing power forward is that when he is paired with Keita or DaJuan Coleman he has to play at the top - or point - of the press. That’s the position we often saw Southerland occupy last year, and where Jerami Grant will spend time this year. I’m willing to chalk up these lapses to Grant’s exclusion from the lineup, but it will be worth keeping an eye out to see if this inconsistent defense becomes a trend over the next few games.

SU's Perimeter Defense: As in years past, smaller, quicker teams that can shoot have the potential to give SU fits. The first half Friday night was no exception. Three Cornell players had three triples each, and guard Nolan Cressler lit up the Orange perimeter for a team-high 23 points. Cooney said after the game that the defensive rotation was tighter in the second half, I assume after a not-so-gentle reminder from Boeheim at halftime. They were able to extend out and bother the Cornell guards more in the second half, and that led to more missed shots and more opportunities for SU to get out in transition.

Final Grade: B

I won’t lie, the first half was really rough. But led by Cooney, SU turned it on in the second and eventually coasted to a comfortable win. The announced 24,788 in attendance were rocking when Cooney went on his hot streak midway through the second half, and the Dome was as loud as I can remember for an early-season game.

Trevor Cooney speaks to the media following SU's victory over Cornell:

(via Jeremy Ryan)

Baye Keita follow-up dunk versus Cornell:

(via Gregg Matalas)

For a more detailed play-by-play recap and commentary of the game and Boeheim’s post-game news conference, check out my Twitter feed.