NEW YORK — Just over two weeks after skying to what seemed to be an improbable high in the Bahamas, Syracuse sunk to an equally improbable low on Sunday, falling 84-72 to St. John's at Madison Square Garden.
The Orange's first loss this season, to Wisconsin on Dec. 2, was at least somewhat excusable. In Syracuse's first game following its championship run at the Battle 4 Atlantis, it made some sense there might be a letdown.
The Orange's second loss, to Georgetown three days later, was almost expected, as the Hoyas were favored to win that game.
This, however, was different. St. John's — which entered today 6-3 with a 16-point loss to Fordham on its resume — simply isn't a very good basketball team. Yet the Bonnies controlled the game from start to finish, sending SU home with what should be classified as a stunning loss.
Thus, the mood afterward in Syracuse's locker room was understandably somber, and much more so than after the previous two losses.
In one corner, Malachi Richardson — who went an abysmal 0-of-11 from 3 — sat with his head in his hands. On the opposite side, Dajuan Coleman, Franklin Howard, Tyler Roberson and Michael Gbinije sat in a row, with each glum face staring straight ahead. It was so silent that, quite literally, you could have heard a pin drop.
"This is definitely a low point," Gbinije said. "We need to get back on the right track, fast."
St. John's sent Syracuse to that low point in-part by limiting Gbinije's opportunities. The Johnnies often focused their defensive efforts on Gbinije, almost imploring some other SU player — perhaps either Trevor Cooney or Richardson — to make the shots to win the game. That didn't happen, though; Cooney and Richardson shot a combined 1-of-19 from 3, and the Orange finished 5-of-26 overall in that department.
On the other end, the Red Storm's double-high offense gave Syracuse fits, and it allowed St. John's to beat SU at its own game. The Johnnies went 12-of-24 from beyond the arc, all but shooting the Orange out of the Garden by the time the final horn sounded.
In the first half, Gbinije was the most effective offensive player on the floor. He shot 5-of-7 from the field, including 2-of-3 from 3, and scored 14 points, making him the only player to score in double figures.
In the second half, though, Gbinije attempted only four field goals and scored just seven points. In the game's final 12 minutes and 16 seconds, he didn't register a single made field goal.
For the Red Storm, that was by design, Amar Alibegovic said.
"We knew with (Gbinije) controlling the ball, especially in the first half, we had some trouble and we would scramble a lot," Alibegovic said. "We just tried to get the ball out of his hands and make the other players handle."
Gbinije said St. John's was consistently doubling him, often opting not to switch on pick-and-rolls in order to avoid allowing him to gain a matchup advantage. That was a risky move, as it led to some relatively open 3s for the Orange's other 3-point threats.
The problem for SU: those shots just didn't go in. Because of that, the Orange failed to ever cut the deficit to less than seven points. They missed their last 10 attempts from 3, all of which came in the game's final 13 minutes and 40 seconds. If SU just makes two or three of those, it's a completely different game.
Of course, it's also true that Syracuse wouldn't have had to make many 3s had it done a better job defensively. But the Red Storm's double-high offense proved to be a puzzle the Orange just couldn't solve.
In this offense, St. John's had whatever two big men were on the court operate out of the high post, while simultaneously leaving capable shooters — like Alibegovic, Federico Mussini and Durand Johnson — sprinkled around the perimeter.
That forced Syracuse to account for both of those areas, and when SU focused too much of its attention on defending the high post, it often proved costly.
"Sometimes we took the gamble and that's when they swung it and they made a deep 3," Cooney said.
The Johnnies' 50% clip from beyond the arc was, by far, the most effective any team has been this season against the Orange in that area. And it was a big reason Syracuse slipped to 7-3, now losers of three of its last four, with its performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis a distant memory as the concerns surrounding this team begin to grow.
"The game's all about highs and lows, and the season's going to be that way, too," Gbinije said. "We just need one good win under our belt and hopefully that will get things clicking again."