The Syracuse Orange twice dug itself deep holes against the Miami Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon at the Carrier Dome. And while SU managed to dig out of the first hole, its second attempt at doing so came up just short.
As has become a pattern, the Orange struggled out of the gate in Saturday's ACC matchup. Miami led 10-1 in the early minutes and 24-14 later in the opening half, all while holding Rakeem Christmas to just five first half points. But Syracuse played close to flawlessly in the half's final eight minutes, finishing on a 12-2 run and earning a 26-26 tie.
The Hurricanes then turned right around and went on an 18-6 run to take a 44-32 lead to open the second half. Behind a much better half from Christmas, who finished with a game-high 23 points, Syracuse again did its best to fight back. The Orange got close, even pulling within a single point at 63-62, but failed to get over the hump and ultimately fell 66-62.
"We can't afford to get down and expect to come back for the rest of the season," said Michael Gbinije afterwards. "If we want to be successful, we gotta minimize not having a lead and being down, and we have to keep ourselves in games."
Syracuse had its chances down the stretch, but free throw shooting plagued the Orange -- something that's becoming all too commonplace. SU finished 8-of-19 from the charity stripe and missed five free throws in the game's last four minutes.
The free throw issues were reminiscent of this season's wins against Virginia Tech and Boston College. In those games, Syracuse nearly coughed up double-digit leads by missing a number of crucial free throws in the final minutes. The Orange managed to escape in both of those instances, but its issues from the line proved far more costly on Saturday.
"We've had two games where we had good leads and missed some free throws down the stretch...and we were able to win," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "...You can't miss 11 free throws. That's really the ball game. We did everything we could to get back in it."
The play of both Christmas and Tyler Roberson served as two of the few bright spots for Syracuse. Christmas's 23 points gave him his sixth 20-point game of the season. The big man scored 18 of those points in the second half.
Roberson scored eight first half points and finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds, good enough for his fourth double-double of the campaign.
"Tyler did a great job. In the first half, he was getting to the basket. In the second half, I guess they started playing more him, leaving me open," said Christmas.
Trevor Cooney scored 14 points, a game-high for players other than Christmas. But aside from him, the SU guards struggled. Michael Gbinije and Kaleb Joseph combined to go 1-of-7 from the field, scoring only six total points and recording only two assists -- both of which were Joseph's.
Tonye Jekiri led the Hurricanes with 13 points and 15 rebounds, while Angel Rodriguez finished with 12 points (2-of-9) and eight assists. Davon Reed went 4-of-5 from the field to finish with 11 points of his own.
The loss puts Syracuse in a difficult spot. The Orange is 13-6 and 5-2 in conference play, but the gauntlet of its ACC schedule remains. SU still plays at North Carolina, at Pittsburgh, Duke twice, Louisville, at Notre Dame, Virginia, and at NC State.
At least as of this moment, Syracuse could be in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
"We don't talk about the postseason. We don't think about it. We play the next game," said Boeheim, who was asked if today's loss put Syracuse in a tough position to make the field of 68. "You guys -- that's your job. Don't ask me that, because I don't answer it."
But if Boeheim wants to play in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season, a win on Monday would surely help. That's when Syracuse travels to Chapel Hill for a date with the 15th-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels at the Dean E. Smith Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.