Admit it. When Cincinnati opened the game by hitting a series of 28-foot three-pointers, you had that thought go through your head: “Oh man, here we go again.” As fans we were still reeling from Saturday’s debacle (myself perhaps more than most, since I’d just watched the ND game on tape earlier Monday afternoon), which would be bad enough. But we are not just any fans, we are naturally pessimistic Syracuse fans. Thus we had little faith at that moment that SU would be able to come back and take this game.
But then something fantastic happened. Over a three-minute span, SU scored nine straight points to turn the early 15-6 deficit into a 15-15 tie. It started with CJ Fair throwing down an uncontested fast-break dunk, SU’s first fast-break points since the Pitt game. After a Cincy miss, Scoop was sent to the line. He missed both his free throws but Fair got the offensive rebound, which led to a three-point play by James Southerland. Cincy missed again and committed a foul on the rebounding action, giving the ball back to SU, a possession that ended with a jumper by Fair. Then Waiters stole the ball and pushed the action. Fair missed a jumper, Southerland missed the putback, Fair missed another putback, but then Rakeem Christmas finally put in SU’s third offensive rebound of the possession, tying the game with 12 minutes remaining in the first half.
Take note that all of SU’s points in this run were scored by CJ Fair, James Southerland, and Rakeem Christmas. They got four offensive rebounds in this span, too. It was this run that convinced me — and I think it convinced the players, too — that this game was not going to be a repeat of Saturday night. It gave them a mental lift to erase the early deficit. Even though Cincy briefly pushed the lead back up to five points, SU was back to playing with confidence, and their superior talent eventually shone through.
The next 22 minutes of game action were essentially the two teams trading baskets. Well, sort of. “Trading baskets” suggests that both teams were scoring regularly. In reality they traded about as many missed shots as made shots. But neither squad really got any separation until the midway point of the 2nd half, when SU went on a 12-2 run to open up an eight point lead. That run was led by the vets, and it’s the one you’re reading about in the papers. Scoop and Brandon hit back-to-back threes, Kris Joseph had two great drives to the hoop, and Rak found Scoop cutting underneath the basket (a play that is usually good for one hoop a game, though it hit twice tonight, the second time to Triche). That was the veteran leadership stepping up late in the game. But I really think the early run, led by the “youngsters”, was what settled everyone’s stomachs and got them back to playing Syracuse basketball.
It is hard to overstate the positive impact Rakeem Christmas had on the game, so I won’t try. I will point out that in addition to his nine rebounds, he “won” SU at least two more possessions that I can remember by fighting for a board that ultimately went out of bounds off of a Bearcat. But he wasn’t alone in providing some presence. Southerland also had 7 boards, and Joseph and Fair each had 6. Granted, outside of Yancy Gates UC is a small team that has trouble on the boards — they have actually been out-rebounded this season overall by their opponents — but SU has had several games this season in which smaller teams have out-scrapped them for rebounds, and Southerland has often been the culprit in this. I was glad to see the Orange determined to hold their own on the glass. For the game they ended up tied 40-40, but SU controlled the boards at key moments: they outrebounded Cincy 7-1 during the first-half run detailed above, and 8-4 during the long stretch of the 2nd half where they grabbed and then extended their lead.
All that said, I am looking forward to the day when SU starts draining threes again like they were early in the year. Here was another game where they missed several wide-open looks in the first half, any one of which would have been a huge boost. I don’t know if it’s mental or if some guys have fallen into some bad shooting habits midway through the season, but let’s break out of this slump, please?