BROOKLYN — Syracuse seemed to differentiate itself from its past struggles against Clemson. The team played perfect defense, got the stops it needed in the closing possessions and kept its top-25 win streak alive another season with only one game remaining. SU, playing and failing to close similar games against top teams before, put it all together.
The trend continued against Wake Forest, a third meeting with the bottom-three ACC team that handed Syracuse its first loss of the year, nearly dealt the Orange its worst meltdown of the year in the Dome with six straight threes and now stood in the way of hope for an NCAA Tournament bid.
But with Oshae Brissett struggling, SU perfectly integrated its two big men into the offense. Marek Dolezaj scored in the flow of the offense all game, while Tyus Battle and Frank Howard routinely worked the ball to Paschal Chukwu in what may have been the Orange’s most competent offensive performance to date. A 73-64 win that secures SU a rematch with North Carolina tomorrow at 9 p.m.
“When they went to the zone, they left (Dolezaj) in open spots,” Jim Boeheim said. “He converted in the fast break situations. When they pressed, he took the ball to the basket. In the middle of the zone, they didn’t guard him in the high post area. He can make that shot.”
Five possessions in the Orange had points or free throws on every possession aside from a travel called on Brissett, an anomaly for an offense that’s had to grind to reach 50 in some games.
Through four minutes SU led 9-4, Battle hitting a sidestep two and Howard a spot-up three on the right wing. Dolezaj flashed his new 16-foot jumper on the left elbow.
Wake head coach Danny Manning said that they entered fixating on Syracuse’s top-three scorers.
Brandon Childress and Dolezaj traded turnovers, but the Deacons once again struggled to open up their offense. Doral Moore tried to pull up on Chukwu and got stuffed on the baseline as Battle yelled out “hell no.”
Olivier Sarr tried navigating the same region following a Brissett reverse layup, and tossed the ball out of bound.
Battle again, “hell no.”
Then Battle attacked both himself, stripping Sarr and running in transition for a dunk. A possession later, he drove left past the top of Wake Forest’s zone and scored through Moore’s foul on his left side.
Moore struck back, catching a pair of alley-oops behind Syracuse’s zone from Bryant Crawford and Mitchell Wilbekin. Chukwu caught his own lob in between the two, and Battle negated a pair of Crawford layups with a three-pointer above the break.
With less than seven minutes remaining Wake Forest broke the double-digit wall down, Kayshawn Woods penetrating into the paint and laying down a floater through the cylinder with a smooth touch. Crawford went up one possession later, and had Chukwu smack his layup into the cameras beneath the rim. But it counted on the goaltending call, Syracuse leading 26-19.
SU’s offense capsized in the meantime; Brissett (twice), Battle and Howard missed four threes in rapid success before Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe fed the Demon Deacons a pair of turnovers. The first eight minutes proved to be the irregularity of the first half as SU faded into a bucket-less stretch for six after.
Late in the shot clock the crowd implored Dolezaj to shoot as the clock struck two. He put his head down, just over one minute remaining and flipped a shot from his wait into the net between two defenders.
SU regained its early form two minutes into the second half, as Dolezaj embarked on a 5-0 run of his own slamming a low-post dump from Chukwu through the net for a three-point play, then running out of the press on a pass from Howard and hitting two free throws.
“(Dolezaj)’s a talented kid,” Howard said. “We just want to put him in spots where he can be productive ... he has a high enough IQ to make the right plays.”
Howard flushed a jumper through a foul by Chaundee Brown, who’d hit a three for Wake Forest’s first points of the half nearly three minutes in. Then threes traded on both ends, first Battle then Terrence Thompson off his own offensive rebound.
Dolezaj tipped the scale of offense Syracuse’s way with another driving finish before the first break to reach 11 points and another 11 point lead. His run of scoring surged on, another pass attempt through the post got tipped and he snatched it out of the air and dunked again to lift the Orange up 45-34.
SU needed it as Brissett started 1-of-9 and Crawford once again poured it on the zone with a 5-of-10 opener. But Howard propelled a needed burst, calling for Battle to swing a pass into a tight corner three he’d make, then following a Chukwu layup he stole the ball from Wilbekin and pushed the ball to Brissett for a slam that put the Orange up 15.
Cuse led by as many as 19 midway through the second half, working the ball across the top of the paint and creating space for Chukwu and Dolezaj to finish two more shots inside and cap the run off at 11-0.
Dolezaj’s run of dominance continued, following a 5-0 run by Wake his near-one-handed-putback that became two free throws on an over-the-back call capped a 4-0 response.
But the Demon Deacons had a comeback in them just like at the Carrier Dome. Woods, Moore and Brandon Childress scored six points in one minutes and broke the lead down to 10.
“We just made some costly turnovers that ended the game,” Battle said. “We just have to clean those things up.”
Crawford hit his third straight shot, a three, to bring the game to seven, which preceded a back-and-forth roar from the crowd that dictated the outcome of the game. Brissett stuffed Sunday Okeke inside twice, the crowd roared, Childress finished the third try, another roar, then Battle lobbed one more pass to Chukwu for a dunk.
SU led 64-58, and Dolezaj and Chukwu closed the door with one more alley-oop, securing Syracuse’s first ACC Tourney win ever and a rematch with North Carolina tomorrow.