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Four takeaways from Syracuse basketball’s 81-73 win over Pittsburgh

Syracuse protects home court to win its first ACC game.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team was able to overcome another double-digit deficit, coming back from 11 down at home to beat the Pittsburgh Panthers 81-73 in the 125th all-time meeting between the two northeast programs.

Syracuse was able to snap Pitt’s three game win streak and improved the series edge to 75-50 all-time and 11-10 in ACC play against the Panthers.

Quadir Copeland eclipsed his previous career-high to score 22 points, grab nine rebounds and dish out four assists to go with three steals. Maliq Brown and Benny Williams scored 15 points each and combined for 15 rebounds and two blocks. Judah Mintz scored a dozen before fouling out and JJ Starling added nine.

It was a back and forth game with seven ties and six lead changes until Syracuse was able to take control of this game late in the second half. The rebounding and defense improved through that stretch and Syracuse took advantage of Pittsburgh staying in the 2-3 zone for too long by inserting Copeland in the high-post and running Williams and Brown along the baseline.

There was plenty to clean up from a game like this, including some of the devil-may-care turnovers and defensive breakdowns leading to fouls, but the importance of the win was twofold: to earn a résumé-boosting win and to start a difficult stretch of conference games on the right foot.

To the takeaways.

Rebounding and turnovers

Pittsburgh came into the day No. 16 in the country with 42.4 rebounds per game. The Panthers held a 22-15 rebounding edge at the half and eight second chance points, so it seemed as if Syracuse was going to have to make up for the rebounding deficit by turning Pittsburgh over. That worked in the first half, but Syracuse wouldn’t need to make up for anything in the second.

Syracuse was able to rebound in the second half and actually won the battle on the glass 40-39. It won the turnovers battle 15-13. It was the Syracuse bench that was able to level the playing field. Copeland led the team with nine rebounds, Brown had eight rebounds and Williams had seven. Check my math, but that’s over half of Syracuse’s total rebounds (24/40) off the bench.

Which leads us to the next point.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse bench at it again

The Syracuse bench continues to be story for this team over the course of its five-game win streak. Starting with the Georgetown game and highlighted by the win over Oregon, the Syracuse bench has stepped up. This team no longer needs Judah Mintz to do all the heavy lifting and that’s another sign of growth for an improving team.

The bench story was similar against Pittsburgh as Williams, Copeland and Brown played major roles in the win, erupting for a season-high 52 points. The bench had 24 of the team’s 40 rebounds, seven of 16 total assists and five of the team’s 12 steals.

Late in the game Williams finished off an emphatic jam from a Mintz lob. Copeland was a key player down the stretch for Syracuse and while he made a few mistakes, he was trusted to finish the game and made plays like this:

The center quandary

Adrian Autry has the make the tough decision of whether he’d rather have rim protection and rebounding from the center spot or whether he’d rather have a mobile big who can defend the perimeter.

Syracuse came out pressuring Pittsburgh aggressively in halfcourt man to man. It worked initially as Mintz and Brown forced turnovers, which led to a mixed bag of fastbreak points and a few easy giveaways from the Orange. But after a while Pitt figured out Syracuse’s defense and made the team pay by making the easy play, feeding the roll for open dunks and uncontested finishes at the rim.

Pitt also forced McLeod to defend from the perimeter and unlocked Guillermo Diaz Graham from three on the pop. That was too much ground for McLeod to make up and instead he was supplanted by Brown.

Brown gives Syracuse versatility from the center position as he’s able to defend outside the paint. He also gives Syracuse more optionality on offense.

But Syracuse is still going to need McLeod. The Orange will play bigs like Armando Bacot of North Carolina, PJ Hall of Clemson, Quenten Post of Boston College and DJ Burns of NC State two times each.

The Orange will call on McLeod and maybe Mounir Hima in those games.

Dome defended

This storyline could gain some more traction in the coming weeks, but Syracuse defended the Dome to remain undefeated at home on the season. The Orange is now 7-0 at the JMA Wireless Dome this season.

Syracuse’s next home game is Jan. 10 against Boston College followed by Miami on Jan. 20. Syracuse has nine home games remaining in the 2023-24 season.