Chris McCullough's career-high 20 points gave Syracuse its second half lead. But it turned out to be a well-timed defensive play that sealed it.
The 6-foot-10 freshman saved the game for Syracuse and avoided a near-colossal collapse to Iowa in Madison Square Garden when he intercepted a pass near the basket at the end of the game. The Hawkeyes slashed their deficit from 15 points to one and had the ball in the final seconds. McCullough slid over from the free throw line, intercepted an entry pass and was fouled with about nine seconds left.
"He came across in our trap and made a great play," Jim Boeheim said. "That was the game. If he doesn't come across and get that one, we don't win it. It was a great play."
McCullough sank a pair of free throws to give Syracuse a three point lead. It was already McCullough's best offensive game of his young career when he closed the game with the steal. Along with 20 points, he had nine rebounds and three blocks, which led Syracuse (3-1) to a 66-63 win over the Hawkeyes in the consolation game of the 2K Classic.
Syracuse's unproven offense - which shot only 36 percent the night before - improved just enough to withstand the Hawkeyes' second half onslaught. Boeheim tightened his rotation to seven players, including Michael Gbinije and Ron Patterson off the bench.
Behind McCullough, Rakeem Christmas was Syracuse's leading scorer with 18 points. Christmas had a bounce back performance after a quiet eight point showing on Thursday. He opened the game with an emphatic dunk and was able to get Iowa's forwards into foul trouble.
"We got him involved better and he finished better," Boeheim said. "I thought he was very good tonight. He's just got to avoid a couple of those fouls. He picked one up in the backcourt. You can't do that."
Boeheim added that Christmas could afford to take fouls during his first three seasons, but now the Orange needs him to stay out on the floor.
Christmas scored 13 of his 18 points in the first half, which gave the Orange a modest five point lead at intermission. Syracuse looked to be in cruise control when Kaleb Joseph found Christmas inside for another layup midway through the second half. That put the Orange up 54-42. Then Christmas was called for his fourth foul on the next defensive possession and checked out of the game with 9:44 left.
The Hawkeyes took advantage with a 16-5 run.
"We needed him to be in the game to be aggressive down low," Joseph said. "I think that definitely played a little bit of a factor. But that's on us. Just because somebody comes out of the game doesn't mean the level of intensity or the level of play can drop."
The Orange compounded Christmas' absence with some sloppy play. The Hawkeyes' relied more on its full court press and 3-2 zone in the second half. It contributed to a scoring drought for Syracuse that lasted six minutes and seven seconds and, often, led to easy chances on the other end.
Last year, Tyler Ennis only had four games with three or more turnovers. Joseph, meanwhile, has done that in each of Syracuse's four games so far and added another four turnovers on Friday night.
"We just made stupid decisions," Joseph said. "We tried to force the ball up the sideline and in a press, you always want to keep the ball up the middle."
The Hawkeyes' run got them within one, but the Orange responded with a McCullough dunk off a Joseph drive to the lane. Syracuse and Iowa traded baskets until McCullough's steal.
"We could have easily have rolled over and said the game's over, we lost it, we had the lead and blew it," Trevor Cooney said. "But we bounced back and we continued to fight."