On a Tuesday night that marked the beginning of life without his usual running mate in the post, Rakeem Christmas had the game of his life as the Syracuse Orange topped the Wake Forest Demon Deacons 89-86 in overtime at the Carrier Dome.
Two days after power forward Chris McCullough tore his ACL in a win against the Florida State Seminoles, Christmas scored 35 points -- a career-high -- to help keep the Orange (13-4, 4-0) undefeated in ACC play. The center also grabbed nine rebounds, finishing one rebound shy of his sixth double-double of the season. His 35 points marked the 16th time in 17 games that he's reached double figures, and the fourth time he's topped 20 points.
"This year I've been getting the ball a lot. I've been making a lot of tough plays," Christmas would later say. "...I love the situation I'm in right now."
Despite a quick start to the night that saw Syracuse grab an early 19-9 lead, the Orange struggled at times, even falling behind 50-41 just four minutes into the second half. But, behind a few Christmas buckets and three three-pointers -- two courtesy of Michael Gbinije -- SU managed to erase the deficit and pulled into a 58-58 tie with under six minutes to play.
From there, the two teams would trade buckets, resulting in Syracuse's second overtime game of the season and its first since a December 20 loss at Villanova. The Orange quickly took the lead in the extra session and, with Christmas making all six of his free throw attempts, managed to hold off the Deacons after Cornelius Hudson nearly connected on a halfcourt heave at the buzzer.
"I thought we overcame a lot today in this game. I thought it was a tremendous, tremendous win," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "...Mike, Trevor, and Rak were outstanding today. It was a great win."
Proving Boeheim's words true, Trevor Cooney, Gbinije and Christmas accounted for 72 of Syracuse's 86 points. Gbinije and Cooney scored 21 and 17 points, respectively, and combined to go 8-of-17 from beyond the arc.
After back-to-back disastrous shooting nights on Syracuse's recent road trip, Cooney has caught fire since returning home. In two games, he's 12-of-23 from deep and has scored 49 total points.
"They're just going in. That's it," Cooney said in the locker room, perhaps downplaying his hot-hand. "There's no button you hit and it just magically goes in. I'm taking good shots and they're just going in, so I just have to keep being aggressive and keep doing what I'm doing."
And though Cooney's efforts surely helped the Orange secure their seventh straight victory, there's no denying that tonight was Christmas's show. Just a season ago, he managed to score in double figures only five times and never eclipsed 15 points in a game. Perhaps tonight was the pinnacle of the center's transformation into one of the most dominant big men in college basketball.
"We all saw it in the offseason," Cooney said of Christmas's improvements. "He had a different attitude and a different swagger about himself...he's just unbelievable."
Christmas was also the leading force in a defensive effort that, while not perfect, held Devin Thomas to just 11 points. The Orange did surrender nine three-pointers, four of which were via Konstantinos Mitogolou, and allowed the Deacons to convert on 48.4 percent of their attempts from the field. But SU countered by connecting on nine three-pointers of its own and grabbing 15 offensive rebounds to help overcome a 41.7 percent shooting clip.
Following what was their second game in just three nights, Christmas and his teammates now get a much-needed three day break between games. They'll then travel to South Carolina, where Syracuse will battle the Clemson Tigers in an attempt to remain perfect in the conference. Tipoff is slated for 4:00pm from Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday.