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Three takeaways from Syracuse men’s basketball’s 71-70 loss to Clemson

Syracuse led 45-35 after 23 minutes while Clemson threw the ball away repeatedly. Then foul trouble hit and undermined Syracuse’s interior completely.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Every team has a foul trouble game each season. The Syracuse Orange began media day with its 12 scholarship players legitimately vying for minutes, then gradually lost three for various reasons before relegating two younger players to the bench into ACC play.

A seemingly deep team thinned out to seven through January, when further injuries mounted at guard. SU nearly escaped the third month of the season without a foul-led loss with only six regular rotation players.

That loss arrived Tuesday, when Clemson fouled out Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe midway through the second half, and pressed Jesse Edwards into his first high-leverage minutes since the Georgetown loss.

The Orange held onto a lead for four minutes after the Tigers pulled within one point with 11:45 remaining. Clemson forced Dolezaj out of the game with four fouls, then Jim Boeheim reinserted him with around 10 minutes left. Dolezaj resettled the Orange with a layup, but fouled out within two minutes.

Clemson immediately took the lead on a 4-0 Tevin Mack run. Syracuse took it back three times, but ultimately lost 71-70 on a Clyde Trapp fast-break layup stemming from the Orange’s attempt to score with one second on the shot clock.

To the takeaways.

What were they doing late?

The Orange waited nearly 10 minutes to get 0.9 seconds after Joseph Girard III heaved a full-court pass to Mack, which he dropped out of bounds. The costly fumble sparked a great debate between officials over when the ball fell out of bounds, which they seemed to split the difference over. The clock initially showed 0.4 seconds. More than one second remained when Mack caught it.

Nevertheless, Howard Washington in-bounded to Elijah Hughes far behind the three point line and he launched a shot from half court that didn’t come close. Whatever action Boeheim planned, Clemson’s defense compromised it after the review and a Tigers timeout that followed.

It was miraculous Syracuse received a half court attempt anyway. More perplexing: why Hughes went all-in to score with 10 seconds remaining on an in-bound lob from Girard. He barely missed a floating layup with the Orange ahead 70-69, and hit the floor while Trapp ran the other way ahead of him to his spot on the right side of the zone. Trapp received a quick pass from Khavon Moore and hit the game-winning layup uncontested while Hughes rushed back.

Syracuse should’ve entered a defensive stance with the lead, instead it took a massive risk and handed Clemson the easiest route to victory. The pressure should’ve been on the Tigers in that scenario — albeit with 10 seconds compared to less than one.

Defense present early, disappeared late.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The Orange built a 50-41 lead through the first four minutes of the half while Clemson threw away five passes during that stretch second half, unable to feed Aamir Simms in the lane. Hughes and Dolezaj read passes, and escaped their positions to cut off the throws.

In the first half, Syracuse scored eight points on nine Clemson turnovers. To start the second, they quickly added six.

Then the Tigers cleaned it up over the final 14 minutes. Clemson only gave away Girard’s steal on Simms that nearly secured victory with 40 seconds left and salvaged Edwards from his own bad pass the possession prior. Boeheim praised Sidibe’s defense after the Pittsburgh win, but it faltered when Mack began attacking Syracuse’s interior.

“We think our center can guard that guy there (high post) and he didn’t,” Jim Boeheim said.

Mack scored 32 points and grabbed six offensive rebounds, doing most of his devastating work in the final 15 minutes. After Syracuse built its biggest lead of the half, Mack sparked his own 5-0 run in less than one minute with an and-one finish inside and another layup after.

After his putback, free throw, layup and jumper, Mack finished two straight jumpers in the paint over Sidibe’s head to give Clemson a 59-56 lead with seven minutes left. At 6’6”, 227 pounds, he did the damage inside Boeheim predicted bigger players would continue to do.

Simms and Trapp dished nine assists in the lane, mostly to Mack on the back line.

Girard tried best to salvage the collapse

Syracuse v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Girard only scored 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting, with a 2-for-7 night from three. His season is far from efficient. He’s timely though. Just as his lone three-pointer helped Syracuse defeat Pittsburgh in a close second half, his aggressiveness made things happen while the Orange collapsed against Clemson.

After Mack’s 4-0 run, Girard exited timeout hitting a game-tying three as he faded to his left on the wing. He responded to Trapp’s three-point play that ended Sidibe’s night with a layup through traffic, one of his most impressive finishes all year, that kept SU within 62-61.

He grabbed two rebounds to finish stops late, nearly caught two more, and splashed a three high above the top of the arc with 94 seconds left to take a 70-67 lead. His steal after Edwards’ turnover should’ve secured victory. Girard took the ball into the half court, drained the clock to 10 seconds and missed a wild layup attempt in traffic that hit Mack and fell out of bounds with one second left on the shot clock.

Hughes and Girard put Syracuse in position to win another road game. Fouls and continued issues on the back line prevented those efforts from continuing SU’s undefeated streak away from the Dome in-conference.