The Syracuse Orange performed with precision offensively in the final moments. Elijah Hughes took two open lanes to the rim down three points each time. He drove the length of the floor down 80-77 and freed himself deep behind the three-point line for one last heave that rocked in-and-out. Only Notre Dame pitched a closer bid to beat the Seminoles on their home floor this year — they’re undefeated there since Jan. 12, 2019 — but shots from that far away are difficult for a reason.
Hughes, who scored 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting grimaced through hard landings on strong finishes in the lane. He spotted-up and hit a pair of three-pointers that helped Syracuse overcome receiving 0 points from Buddy Boeheim. The Orange placed its NCAA Tournament hopes in two extremely difficult road games late in the season. Now, having lost one of them — burned-out and banged-up — we are left with a complicated season to evaluate.
SU advanced greatly from a team that looked lifeless late in December to one capable of challenging a legitimate championship contender on the road. Joseph Girard III carried the offense for stretches with 22 points albeit on 7-for-22 shooting. Quincy Guerrier and Hughes steadied the perimeter defense on the wings. Even Bourama Sidibe saved the offense with put-backs while SU faded down 43-36 early in the second half.
Barring a long ACC Tournament run — or even a championship — the Orange will play in the NIT. It’s difficult to imagine them winning out, especially when NC State and Wake Forest pushed the Orange to the brink recently.
“Our defense hasn’t been good down the stretch,” Jim Boeheim said. “You’re not going to win all the close games you have.”
Can’t-lose games against North Carolina and Georgia Tech that follow Wednesday’s trip to Louisville don’t appear to be walk-throughs. Anything can happen, but it’s worth evaluating how SU reached to within some analyst’s “next four out” to firmly outside the bubble.
1. Girard willing to take risks for better and worse
Joe Girard. The fan favorite who has become a significant reason the Orange remain in games as much as he takes them out of them. He picked up Boeheim in his worst game with the Orange (0-for-7, 0-for-5 from three). Girard’s seven misses from three jumpstarted Florida State’s transition offense.
The Orange played the Seminoles within 29-29 through 18 minutes with excellent defensive rotations and Girard’s steady hand inside and out. Then Girard launched a three several steps behind the line with 14 seconds left on the shot clock. He took another — albeit a quality look — with 20 seconds and Florida State turned it into four easy fast-break points.
The misses charged a 14-4 Seminoles run that derailed everything the Orange built to that point. Early in the second, they were in trouble of fading completely before Sidibe emerged with three straight free throws and a one-handed put back finish. His run steadied SU down 45-41, before the Seminoles burst on another 10-0 run midway through the second half.
Syracuse, down 11, needed offense and received it through Girard’s aggressiveness. Like with his 30 points against NC State, Boeheim took the good with bad and opted to play Brycen Goodine in the place of Buddy while allowing Girard to run. It paid off late in the second, when a layup in traffic and deep bomb from three gave Syracuse the lead with under six minutes remaining.
Girard takes you through a wave of highs and lows each game, with the vision to hit Guerrier on the back line, elite free throw shooting and the team’s steadiest ball-handling. He also routinely takes risks that pay off in steals and other times crash and burn, like on this early three-point look that injured MJ Walker early. More on him later.
2. Hughes perseverance
The loss robbed Hughes of one of the most memorable, gritty performances through injury in Syracuse history. He traveled to Tallahassee after suffering a strained groin in warmups against NC State.
Boeheim knew he’d play, but didn’t know how well he’d move. In the opening minutes, he looked comfortable enough to hit a pair of knockdown jumpers in the lane. He shifted comfortably enough to discard defenders, until he hit a wet spot and collapsed.
He and Brad Pike walked toward the locker room and it looked like Hughes’ night ended early. Then he began jogging, looking to free up the discomfort and turned back toward the court. Boeheim provided little resistance — within moments Hughes jumped back into the game.
As analysts quipped about Vernon Carey Jr., Tre Jones, Luka Garza and the greats in college basketball, Hughes thrived right before them. He nearly dunked, knocked away shots at the rim and hit a pair of threes while looking barely comfortable enough to walk up the floor.
Hughes’ great season leading a severely undermanned Orange group continues to go overlooked nationally. Unfortunately, if Syracuse misses the NCAA Tournament it may in the eyes of Orange history as well. Hughes’ performance would headline every sport telecast if his three fell at the buzzer. Instead, it’ll only be another lost opportunity for this team.
He put his body on the line, drove into defenders and gave the Orange two leads in the final five minutes, where he shot 4-for-6.
The Seminoles received a critical contribution from an injured player too, as Walker collided in traffic underneath on an early Florida State three. He exited the game with a bloody lip that needed stitches. After returning, he drilled five threes in the win.
SU led 68-64 with 3:49 remaining after Hughes nearly lost the ball on the left wing, couldn’t find it, but boxed out his defender long enough to retain possession. When Florida State swarmed, he dished to Marek Dolezaj who had a 2-on-1. Guerrier converted a three-point play on Dolezaj’s lob.
Within three after free throws by both teams, Walker waited while Hughes flew over him on a contest and drilled a three through Girard’s foul. It was the single most devastating point, as the Seminoles took the lead with six back-and-forth scoring plays to come.
3. Dolezaj and Guerrier still growing
It’s devastating to imagine Hughes leaving for professional basketball without achieving the national stage he deserves for his performance this year. Though even if he departs this offseason, Saturday showcased more encouraging returns from Guerrier and Dolezaj. If Dolezaj didn’t hit early foul trouble — again — we could be talking about a different result.
He posted eight points, six rebounds, two assists and a pair of blocks. His cross-court passes produced open threes. His activity on the offensive glass saved Girard from his craziest shot all afternoon.
He and Guerrier also formed a formidable defensive back line. Through Syracuse’s best stretches on defense, Guerrier and Hughes could stretch to the wings to help on shooters and Dolezaj did not get burned on the back line.
Dolezaj and Guerrier combined on a key lob late, Girard found Guerrier for one early in the game and Guerrier flashed defensive anticipation. While Syracuse got murdered on the boards — 47-29 with 20 Florida State offensive boards on 37 misses — they overcame it by forcing 18 Seminoles turnovers. Guerrier finished 4-of-5 from the field with two blocks.
Syracuse received 30 points on 11-of-13 shooting from its bigs. As Kevin mentioned, the Orange controlled the paint enough to go there more often. Even Girard looked better inside than he did bombing his deepest threes. Boeheim could’ve found one bucket inside.
Dolezaj’s continued ascent proved the greatest silver lining in the loss, as he’ll return a critical factor for next year’s team. His driving dunk putting it on the floor was one of the best plays of the season.
“Marek had his spurts today,” Boeheim said. “But I think he’s better than he’s played these last couple of games.”