Another game, another quality road win for the Syracuse Orangemen. And not one of these ‘friendly’ road games that people seem to not to want to give us credit for. (Hey, can we help it if nobody in New Jersey wants to buy tickets to watch Seton Hall or Rutgers? Sorry Pat Forde.) Notre Dame’s shrunken arena — they actually reduced its seating capacity in renovations — was loud and antagonistic. But, much like Saturday’s WVU game, the boys in orange were not rattled by the environment. Not a whit. In fact, it seemed to focus them. Exhibit A:
I just said, ‘We gotta make a stand right now, before the crowd gets into it.’
-Andy Rautins, relating his pep talk in the huddle after that bullshit intentional foul call
Exhibit B: 11 turnovers total. And anyone who watched the game can attest that almost none were of the Devendorf variety that has been plaguing the team this season. A lot of the turnovers this year have been the unforced type. Guys trying to make fancy highlight-reel passes through three defenders, or attempting to manufacture a fast break where there isn’t one. This game, there was very little of that. It’s as if playing in a hostile environment forced them to keep their heads on straight. Or maybe Coach’s preaching has done some good. The easiest way to get an opposing crowd fired up is to make stupid turnovers that lead to fast breaks for the home team. SU focused on taking care of the ball and kept sitting the crowd down by methodically responding to each Notre Dame mini-surge with their own surge of equal or greater measure. Cut the lead to 2? OK, how about a 10-3 run to push it back to 9? Drain a couple threes to cut it back to 5? Fine, we will just close out the game on a 17-9 run. Calm. Confident. Did you see how SU failed to fall in love with the three-pointer? When you drop a bunch of threes early, the tendency is to keep launching them all game. SU was 7-11 on threes in the first half. So what happens in the second half? They only attempted six of them, while working the ball inside for 21 shots at twos, as well as many other FG attempts that resulted in 25 second-half free throws. (Some of those FTs were late-game fouling tactics by ND, but most were created by the SU offense purposefully going inside.) They played such a mature game tonight. As Mike Brey said in the postgame, “They played like men for 40 minutes.”
These Orange players do not panic. They do not wilt under pressure. They do not get rattled, nervous, worried, disturbed, bothered, anxious, concerned, distressed, flustered, agitated, worked up, scared, unsettled, or disquieted. They respond. And they are getting better at it every game. This three-game six-day road test seems to have matured the team even more. Some of the talking heads on TV were saying in December that SU looked really good, but that they had perhaps reached their ceiling already. They (the heads) didn’t think there was much room for improvement on this team, and thus although they may have seemed like the best team in the nation at the moment, other teams were likely to pass SU during the season. I am happy to report that this was erroneous. The youngsters (Triche and Joseph) have both made big strides over the past couple of weeks, and the team as a whole is continuing to hone its game and improve in every aspect. They are rebounding better, turning it over less, and playing with more poise and confidence each game. Playing these three games on the road, and winning them all, is a marvelous feat. But the positive effects this trip will have on the team are going to be felt far beyond just their RPI. It’s going to show up every time an opponent makes a run. This team’s game is resilient.
Every Orangeman who played tonight made an important contribution to the effort and deserves to be recognized. Rautins, with his hot shooting early and his leadership late. Johnson, by being a steady and steadying presence throughout the game. When things were a little dicey, they looked to him to keep the Irish at bay and he responded. Triche with only one turnover and a key three-pointer midway through the second half. Scoop with an important hoop towards the end of the first half and six assists. Jackson with a hard-hat effort of 6 points (four of them on identical inbounds plays), 4 boards, and three blocks. Joseph with some key late rebounds, at least twice on the offensive end, and a couple of one-on-one scoring drives when the offense had stagnated. And Arinze Onuaku with his best game in a while — 13 points, 7 rebounds, and a real inside presence the entire time he was on the floor. He didn’t disappear for long stretches like he has at times this season. Plus, yes we have to mention it: provoking shouts of disbelieving joy by making four free throws in a row, and at key moments in the game taboot.
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A solid Marquette team awaits on Saturday, followed by They-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named next Monday night. Should be a couple of great games. I’m nearly incontinent with anticipation for the matchup against the Hoyas. They look damn good this year (I’m loath to say it but it’s true). But don’t look past the Golden Eagles, they just put a 30-point hurt on Providence — sure PC is not Kansas, but that’s an insane margin for a conference game — and have beaten Georgetown already, and they nearly beat WVU (lost by 1), Florida State (ditto), and Villanova twice (lost both games by 2). A few lucky bounces and they’d be 15-2 and probably ranked in the top 10.
So, the Orangemen may be heading home but the competition is going to remain just as fierce. As a wise man once said, though, I ain’t scurred. Bring it on. Let’s keep this party rolling.