PITTSBURGH — The moment that may have ultimately cost Syracuse a chance at upsetting Pittsburgh on Wednesday night was, frustratingly for SU, completely avoidable. With six minutes and 30 seconds to play and the Panthers leading 55-52, Dajuan Coleman swiped at a low post entry pass and was whistled for the reach-in foul.
It was the right call, but it was a totally unnecessary foul. Even worse, it was Coleman's fifth, meaning he was disqualified from playing the rest of the way.
As Coleman walked slowly toward Syracuse's bench, Pittsburgh's student section helped him get there, chanting "Left! Right! Left!" in accordance with every step he took — and erupting into a raucous cheer when he finally took a seat. His exit from the game would turn out to be Syracuse's death sentence, as Pittsburgh ended the game on a 17-9 run to capture a 72-61 victory over SU at the Petersen Events Center in the ACC opener for both teams.
The Orange, who entered as 9-point underdogs, hung tough much of the way by holding their own in the paint, a style of basketball that hasn't previously suited them well. But Syracuse couldn't survive without Coleman, and its upset bid collapsed.
"Dajuan's physical presence, we need," Orange interim coach Mike Hopkins said. "... That last five minutes, (Pittsburgh) gave it to us."
In reality, it was actually a roughly 3-minute stretch that killed the Orange. After Syracuse grabbed a 59-58 lead with 3:54 to play, the Panthers put together a 9-0 run over the next two minutes and 45 seconds, scoring eight of those points on just four shots in the paint, which had suddenly become less daunting with Coleman out of the game.
Coleman's individual statistics weren't impressive — he scored two points and grabbed just a single rebound — but his mere presence altered the game in ways that favored the Orange.
Make what you will of plus-minus numbers, but Coleman finished minus-2 on the night, meaning Syracuse was minus-9 when he wasn't in the game. Perhaps more telling: Pittsburgh was, by my count, just 4-of-10 on 2-point shots when Coleman was in the game — compared to 14-of-26 when he wasn't.
Of course, the ironic part of Coleman fouling out for the first time this season Wednesday night was that it happened in the first game that the Orange desperately needed him on the court. In past games, Coleman has hindered Syracuse offensively while not doing enough on defense to compensate.
But while those games were often dominated by perimeter-oriented offense, Wednesday was quite the opposite, with most of the action being played out in the paint.
The Orange, for instance, attempted just 15 3-pointers, quite a few for an average team but far below average for them. It tied their season-low and marked just the second time they have attempted fewer than 20 shots from beyond the arc in a game this season.
"(The Panthers) were playing tight pressure defense," Michael Gbinije said. "They chased us off the (3-point) line tonight."
So Syracuse adjusted and, for one of the first times this season, consistently forced the ball inside. SU had 28 points in the paint, good for 45.9% of its total scoring. Power forward Tyler Roberson took 12 shots, the second-most he's taken in a single game this season. On three occasions, Malachi Richardson got to the rim and scored — something he hasn't often done this season. Meanwhile, Gbinije and Trevor Cooney finished with a combined 18 attempts from the charity stripe, which was mostly a result of them attacking the basket.
"We were aggressive," Cooney said. "I'm proud of the way we played. Really, really proud of the way we fought and played."
As intangible as that may sound, it was that fight on both sides of the ball — and particularly down low — that put Syracuse in a position to win. And if not for Coleman picking up his fifth foul as early as he did, the Orange might have fought themselves to a win.