Syracuse's inability to play well down the stretch of close games could end up coming back to haunt them on Selection Sunday if it has not been a prominent theme in their nightmares already. The problem became even more evident on a national stage Saturday as the Orange, who led by six with 8:30 remaining in the second half, were unable to hold on to what would have been the biggest victory of the season so far against North Carolina.
The loss was the fourth-straight to start the conference schedule, and to make matters worse, all of the games were within two points heading into the last five minutes of regulation. The Orange are now just 2-5 in games that entered the final five minutes where neither team was winning by more than five.
As one could imagine, the Orange have played horrendously in these situations, and their bad habits shined bright again on Saturday. They were outscored 24-13 in the final five minutes of the game, making just four of their final 10 shots while the Tar Heels made seven out of eight. North Carolina was extremely efficient, as all seven field goals came off an assist and six of the makes came from inside the paint. In these seven games, Orange opponents are now a combined 32/59, a scorching hot 54.2 percent from the field.
While Jim Boeheim was not on the sideline for the first three close calls in conference play, his presence did not seem to make a difference down the stretch this time. The caliber of the opponent, however, seemed to be too much for the Orange to handle when getting stops meant the most. The Tar Heels figured out how squeeze the rest of the juice out of the Orange at the end of the game, saving their best zone-busting tactics for last.
The Orange were not as bad offensively in this stretch as they have been in the games prior, but they were unable to make things difficult for the Tar Heels with their defense putting an unrealistic amount of pressure on the offense to respond almost every time they came down the court, as the Tar Heels scored almost one third of their total points in the final five minutes. It is hard to win basketball games when a team is able to score 24 points on you during ANY five minute stretch of a 40 minute affair.
As this trend of allowing games to get away continues, it will be interesting to see if the Orange can make any adjustments. As teams continue to play their best against the zone in the final minutes of the game, I think we all might be slightly intrigued as to what kind of difference a switch to man defense down the stretch would make. Using the past 40 years as a sample size, I would say the chances of that are highly unlikely, but if the Orange want any chance of making the NCAA Tournament, something about how they are playing at the end of games needs to change very soon.