Jerome Dyson went down with a knee injury but No. 1 UConn kept rolling, beating Syracuse 63-49 at home.
UConn (23-1, 11-1) has brought stability to the No. 1 ranking after a topsy-turvy month that saw four different teams hold the top spot. The Huskies also featured an 11-game winning streak and had no intentions of ending it.
Syracuse (18-7, 6-6), on the other hand, had dropped five of seven and had seen its ranking plummet to No. 22 in the polls. The Orange hoped to avoid skidding straight out of the polls and if it keeps up, out of the NCAA tournament as well.
As expected, the game started off very competitively. Syracuse had surprising success in the paint even though Hasheem Thabeet was his normal imposing self. Syracuse forward Arinze Onuaku didn’t score a lot of points but was effective rebounding and blocking shots.
During one stretch, Thabeet blocked a Jonny Flynn shot, but on the other end Thabeet’s own dunk attempt was blocked by Kristof Ongenaet. Things were looking up for the Orange and this was typical of the equal play during the half.
Syracuse was the first team to open up a sustained lead, taking advantage of some uncharacteristic Husky turnovers. Since being ranked No. 1, UConn has had some early turnover problems in games against Louisville and Michigan.
Syracuse opened a five-point lead, 16-11, as UConn went on a four-minute drought. In addition to the turnovers, a more ominous sign came for UConn as Dyson suffered an apparent knee injury.
Dyson had been averaging 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists for the Huskies.
Syracuse kept its lead until the eight-minute mark when A.J. Price cut the lead to 21-18 with a three-point shot. Onauku then took a seat on the Syracuse bench with two fouls.
With just under seven minutes to go, UConn tied the game at 21-21 on a Stanley Robinson free throw.
The action went back and forth until UConn took a 30-27 lead at the end of the half.
Thabeet had an astounding seven rebounds, five blocks and four points. Stanley Robinson and Price each had six points for the Huskies.
Syracuse was led by Flynn’s 11 points but more importantly, they were getting to the rim and playing very tenacious basketball, forcing 14 turnovers. Onuaku had three rebounds and Rick Jackson had four as the Orange front line held its own against UConn’s fearsome duo of Thabeet and Jeff Adrien.
Syracuse kept it close in the first half with scrappy front-line play, capitalizing from UConn turnovers, but its luck ran out in the second half.
Syracuse made it close for the first four minutes of the half before the wheels completely fell off. It was not as if Syracuse quit playing hard-nosed basketball—Eric Devendorf and Ongenaet would provide plenty of hustle and spark—Connecticut was just that much better.
Price picked up the slack for the fallen Dyson, pouring in a team-high 17 points. Adrien and Craig Austrie also scored in double figures for the Huskies.
UConn slowed the tempo and tightened up its defense. Gone were the turnovers that plagued the Huskies in the first half as their guard play picked up tremendously.
Syracuse had gotten to the rim often in the first half but suddenly felt very unwelcome in the paint. Any time the Orange players drove to the basket, they were greeted by a hostile Thabeet.
Thabeet had a great first half, but in the second he was just downright nasty. Each block and rebound became more thunderous and demoralizing, sapping the will of the Orange as the game itself became more hostile.
Jackson and Thabeet even did a little shoving after the whistle. Late in the game, Thabeet inadvertently rifled the ball into the face of Ongenaet, sending him to the floor as Thabeet tried to save the ball from going out of bounds.
That was a microcosm of the entire half as Syracuse was pushed around. The lead got as high as sixteen points during a 10-0 UConn run. The Orange got as close as 11, but any momentum gained was quickly crushed by Thabeet’s fearsome shot-blocking.
Thabeet finished with 16 rebounds, seven blocks, and eight points.
The bright spots for Syracuse were Devendorf’s 12 points and Ongenaet’s eight rebounds and invaluable hustle. These are things that the Orange can build on for the rest of the season but will not stop their impending slide out of the Top 25.
During the last two minutes of the game, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun called off the dogs and waved his hands wildly for his players to stop the carnage.
It was a sign of mercy.
No. 1 rolls on.