Rakeem Christmas returned to his dominant form Wednesday night, recording 29 points, eight rebounds and four blocks as the Syracuse Orange topped the Louisville Cardinals 69-59 in the former Big East rivals' first meeting as ACC foes.
Rakeem Christmas showed up in a big way as SU got its biggest win of the season.
Christmas had just about gone missing in Syracuse's two games prior to Wednesday's. He followed a 7-point showing at Boston College by scoring just 11 points against Duke on Saturday, going a combined 8-of-25 from the field in the two contests. But in what head coach Jim Boeheim called the best game he's played this season, the center missed only one field goal attempt Wednesday and finished six points shy of his career-high, set against Wake Forest last month.
"He was great tonight," Boeheim said. "He finished everything down there. He was spectacular. He was good in the low post. He was great defensively."
Christmas's 29 points marked the 24th time in 26 games that he's scored in double figures this season and the ninth time that he's reached the 20-point plateau.
"As soon as the Duke game ended -- from that point until game time today, he just had an edge," Michael Gbinije said. "You could tell he was eager to play basketball...I knew he was going to have a good game tonight."
The big man's big night meant Gbinije was spelt from having to carry the load, something he's done a lot of recently. After being Syracuse's leading or co-leading scorer in four straight games, Gbinije played Robin to Christmas's Batman on Wednesday. He finished 5-of-10 from the field with 18 points, five rebounds, and six assists.
"Mike's playing great," Boeheim said. "...I don't think you can ask anybody to play any better than this kid's playing."
Aside from Gbinije and Christmas, the only other Syracuse player to score in double figures was Tyler Roberson, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. Roberson scored nine of his 13 points in the second half, a performance that was indicative of the team's play as a whole.
Syracuse trailed by as many as eight points in the first half and faced a 32-28 halftime deficit, but stormed back in the second half, finishing the game on a 41-24 run to secure its eighth victory in ACC play. It was somewhat of a role reversal for the Orange, who in their previous three losses had squandered halftime leads.
Boeheim would credit the comeback largely to his defense, which held the Cardinals to just 32.1 percent shooting in the second half. Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, who went 5-of-6 and had 12 points in the first half, went 1-of-4 from the field and scored only three points in the latter 20 minutes.
"We kept them in outside and still challenged the three-point shooters," Boeheim said. "We just did a better job of keeping them out of the lane...That was the difference in the game, really."
On the other side of the ball, Syracuse shot 46.8 percent from the field (including 57.9 percent in the second half) and scored a number of timely buckets, one of which came via Kaleb Joseph. With just over two minutes remaining and the Orange grasping to a 60-54 lead, Joseph drove into the lane and converted on a mid-range jumper as the shot clock was close to expiring.
"Whenever it's late in the shot clock, we always try to get in the lane and try to make a play," Joseph said.
From there, the Orange used clutch free throw shooting -- they went 7-of-8 from the line in the final two minutes -- to ice the win. Syracuse, which has had difficulty making key free throws this season, shot 77.8 percent (21-of-27) from the charity stripe, a far cry better than the 65.1 percent clip that had the team 13th in the ACC in that department.
"We made the ones we had to," Boeheim would say.
Syracuse will look to do more of the same this coming Saturday, when the Orange play host to the Pittsburgh Panthers as they look to avenge their February 7 loss at Petersen Events Center. Tipoff from the Carrier Dome is slated for 12:00 p.m.