It wasn't pretty. It wasn't easy. And you had to watch all 40 minutes. But ultimately, the result was the same as it has been all season for the No. 1 Syracuse Orange. C.J. Fair led all scorers with 19 points and the Orange hung on for a 57-44 win against Clemson. The resilient Orange withstood a pesky Clemson team, an injury to Baye Keita and foul trouble to Rakeem Christmas. Jerami Grant filled in admirably as the de-facto center and scored 12 points to go along with eight rebounds.
There aren't many free passes in the ACC and this game certainly wasn't one of them. Clemson (15-7, 6-4) leads the country in defense and has some quality conference wins, including against Duke. But the Orange made the most of its opportunities by making 44 percent from the field and only turning the ball over five times.
Here is my report card from SU's victory, which improved the team's conference record to 10-0:
Head of the Class
Is there really any doubt about it? It's C.J. Fair. With the loss of Keita, Fair became the only senior on the floor for either team and it showed. He went 8-13 and rebounded from his six-point performance against Notre Dame. Fair only missed his seventh 20+ point game by one. After the game, Fair said the key for him was hitting the first few shots, which boosted his confidence.
"As a player, you feel like you’re in a groove," he said. "You might take shots that you know aren’t the best shots."
Boeheim said it wasn't Fair's best game, but it was one of his more efficient ones. Don't sleep on his defensive play, either. He had seven rebounds and one block, but several of his bigger plays will not show up in the box score. Although the Tigers play a slow tempo, many times they had to use the whole shot clock out of necessity. Fair deserves more credit than anyone else as he was able to close out on Clemson's shooters.
"He was C.J," Trevor Cooney said after the game. "He got going early, which was good for him. He was able to get to the basket and get to the foul line and hit some jumpers. He was normal C.J."
Jerami Grant: With Keita and Christmas on the bench, Grant took over as a dominant presence in the middle. Grant said he hasn't played center in a game since middle school, but you couldn't tell. The Tigers only had two points in the paint in the last 10:25 of the game. Grant also had eight rebounds and one block. Despite playing for long without a true center, Syracuse only got out-rebounded 31-29.
"It’s definitely a little different," he said. "I wasn’t used to the size, but at the same time, you have to adjust in certain situations."
He was also one of Syracuse's best offensive players. Grant had 12 points, making it his 18th game scoring in double digits. For so much of the game, he was simply bigger and stronger than anyone Clemson could put out.
"Jerami is one of the versatile guys we have," Tyler Ennis said. "We have a lot of guys who can play both sides of the zone, whether it’s the guard or the forward."
Ball Control: With Clemson's style, it was imperative that the Orange made the most of every possession. Sure enough, Syracuse only turned the ball over five times, compared to 13 for Clemson. Ennis definitely didn't have his most dominating game -- he scored six points on 3-11. But he still managed to have five assists to one turnover. Never flustered, the freshman point guard continued to play a disciplined game and distribute the ball well around the court even when he wasn't playing his best.
"A couple of my guys had it going so I wasn’t focused on getting to the basket or scoring," he said. "Defensively, (Clemson) did a good job of clogging the paint, but C.J. got in there and made a lot of tough shots."
After the game, Fair deflected praised back to Ennis.
"When you don’t turn the ball over, it gives you more opportunities to score and it keeps them out of fast-break situations," Fair said.
Stay after School: The Syracuse Bench
The big concern when DaJuan Coleman was ruled out for the season was how it would affect Syracuse's depth. More specifically, if it could hurt the Orange in a one-game scenario in the NCAA tournament. We all saw that nightmare come to life on Sunday with Grant having to play center and Michael Gbinije slotted at the forward position. Grant and Fair were able to save the Orange, but they only got three points from the bench players. It will be something to keep an eye on as the season goes forward.
Final Grade: B+
Although it wasn't Syracuse's cleanest game, credit the Orange for not getting anxious at all. The Tigers implement a very slow, low-scoring style of play that can be extremely frustrating to play against. It's really a testament to this team. They can win in a sharpshooting game against Duke and they can win in a grudge match like this one. Whatever you throw at Syracuse, they're not fazed. Even when the team's top two big men get hurt and the third gets in serious foul trouble, the Orange remain poised and adaptable.
Syracuse is back in action on Wednesday for a game against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the Petersen Events Center.
For a more detailed roundup from Jim Boeheim's postgame news conference and around the locker room, click here and check out my Twitter timeline.