After a week-long hiatus following the rout of Binghamton, the Syracuse basketball team headed to Madison Square Garden for a meeting with St. John's.
The Orange jumped out to a 39-27 halftime lead, only to let the Johnnies storm back and gain control late in the second half. Some late missed free throws and turnovers by St. John's, combined with some more C.J. Fair clutchness, spurred the Orange to a 68-63 victory.
Of course, a win is a win, so there are always encouraging signs to point to. But allowing a team to come back from a double-digit deficit is cause for concern. Let's take a look at some of the best and worst from Syracuse's win at the world's most famous arena.
Seriously, is this kid really a freshman?
Even the bright lights of New York couldn't overwhelm Syracuse's young playmaker, as Tyler Ennis poured in 21 points, six assists, three rebounds and two steals in 39 minutes, according to ESPN. Ennis did, however, struggle to protect the ball as he turned it over a whopping TWO times.
Ennis made all 10 of his free-throw attempts and five of his 12 shots from the field. A few missed layups kept him from having a spectacularly efficient shooting day. St. John's couldn't keep him out of the lane, and thus, he got just about any shot he wanted and was able to set up teammates with easier looks.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was not shy with his praise for his young point guard after the game, per Mike Waters of Syracuse.com:
As a freshman point guard, he's playing better than anybody that I've ever had. I've had just a few pretty good freshman point guards. He's really been unbelievable. If he played like a normal freshman, we'd be about 7-3.
If Ennis continues to improve on his already stellar play, this team could be really scary come March.
On the other end of the spectrum from Ennis was Trevor Cooney, who was 0-of-3 from the field, with all three attempts coming from beyond the arc. The Cooney of old seemed to make a cameo Sunday, as he seemed to lose his confidence after failing to connect early from three.
Part of that had to do with the Red Storm's defense. It clearly was unwilling to let Cooney get any easy looks, opting to stay in his shorts in favor of helping on drives by Ennis and Fair. Cooney's struggles even affected him on defense and caused Boeheim to take him out in favor of Michael Gbinije late in the game.
"The reason I took Trevor out was he made a couple bad defensive plays,'' Boeheim said, per Waters. "It wasn't his offense. He made a couple bad defensive plays.''
Cooney is Syracuse's second-leading scorer. He is the main three-point threat for the Orange, and they can't hope to be a contender without his contributions. Boeheim echoed as much to Waters:
"We're going to have to work harder to get him open. We need him. He's a big difference-maker for us when he's making shots."
C.J. Fair must relish playing on the biggest stage. He proved as much in Maui when he stopped a good Baylor team from coming back by nailing some clutch jumpers late. Sunday in the Garden, it was more of the same for Fair.
With three minutes to go and Syracuse clinging to a two-point lead, Fair calmly hit from the right baseline to put his team up four. He did the same a few moments later to extend the lead to 66-61 and all but ice the game.
Fair did miss a couple of late free throws, which is uncharacteristic of him. But he still knows he will be counted on when his team needs a basket late.
"I know I'm looked upon to deliver. I want to be there for my team," Fair said to Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com.
In tight, late-game situations (like, say, in March), having a senior who has been there before and is ready for the moment is a tremendous luxury. Fair is, and will continue to be, that guy for the Orange. Boeheim reiterated that fact to Ditota:
"He knows it's going to be his play, he's going to get the ball, it's going to be his opportunity," Boeheim said. "And he's prepared for that."
After building such a big lead at halftime, the Orange must have expected to coast through the second half to an easy W.
But St. John's was having none of that, and the Red Storm had all of the momentum on their side until the waning minutes of the game. Their defensive intensity went to another level, and you could see as much with defenders clapping their hands in their defensive stances as Syracuse brought the ball up.
The Syracuse offense sputtered to only 29 points in the second half. It was enough to eke out a win, but having Trevor Cooney just stand in the corner while Ennis, Jerami Grant or Fair tries to go one-on-one is not a recipe for long-term success.
Between attempted comebacks by St. John's and Baylor, the Orange should know that no lead is safe. With ACC play just around the corner and a huge matchup with Villanova (ranked 8th in the AP, 12th in Coaches) looming, the team needs to remain aggressive despite the score.
Even though the offense struggled in the second half, Syracuse's defense again got it done when it mattered most.
Syracuse forced St. John's to commit two turnovers in the last minute-and-a-half to limit the opportunities to trim the lead. In addition, Grant's two-handed, volleyball-style block on JaKarr Sampson with about 30 seconds left put the exclamation point on Syracuse's victory.
That Syracuse continues to make plays down the stretch of games is a testament to its winning mentality. The experience from closing out games in November and December should give the team plenty of confidence that it can continue to do so in February and March.