Sky High!

Never mind that the Syracuse Orangemen men's basketball team currently has the third-best record among all Big East conference squads, one of the most talented freshman players in all the land, if not the best, and a wave of confidence despite losing to league-mate Pittsburgh last week.

The University of Miami feels much the same way.

Miami (8-7, 1-3) can't boost about having an eye-catching record or a first-year college basketball player that is being mentioned as a possible lottery selection in the 2003 NBA draft. But after losing three consecutive conference games on the road before upsetting Connecticut with a buzzer-beater earlier this week, the Hurricanes are feeling better about themselves and welcome the challenge of hosting Syracuse Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Convocation Center in Coral Gables, the first encounter between both schools in close to two years. Syracuse (12-2, 3-1) beat Seton Hall Wednesday night 83-65 before heading to South Florida.

The Orangemen have dominated the series, winning 12 of 17 meetings against the Hurricanes dating back to 1963. After not facing each other for 29 years, Syracuse has won 11 of 16 contests between both teams in the 90's. But the Hurricanes are only looking at what lays ahead, not what has transpired in the past. And they may want to give junior forward Darius Rice a few extra pats on the back for their newly found optimism on a season that appeared headed into the gutter.

"We're feeling good about ourselves," said UM coach Perry Clark. "The guys are really juiced up and feel they can make a little run and get closer to where we want to be."

Boy, what a difference a few seconds can make. Rice, the Hurricanes leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to send the Hurricanes past the Huskies 77-76, Monday night, Jan. 20 at the Convocation Center. Rice single-handedly kept the Hurricanes from another defeat with a career-high 43 points, including seven three-pointers. Although he fell short of the single-game school record for points of 59 set by Rick Barry against Rollins College in 1965, Rice became the first UM player to score 43 points since 1996 (Steve Rich).

Although more importantly, Rice helped the Hurricanes get something they desperately needed- a win. And after getting off to a slow start in the conference and hearing some rumblings about their performance, the Hurricanes now having something to positive to build on for the remainder of the season.

"We needed this one in the worst way," said Rice, who has been the team's high-scorer in six games this season, including the last three. "I told myself, if I can get my hands on the ball the shot is going in. We couldn't afford another loss."

A loss to the Huskies would have been devastating for the Hurricanes on several accounts. For one, Miami would have dropped under .500 remained winless in the Big East. Two, any chance of reaching the postseason (NCAA Tournament or National Invitational Tournament) would have been considered a stretch with a 7-8 overall record. Three, a continued losing streak would have only caused the team's moral to sink even lower.

The Hurricanes, which haven't had a losing season since 1993 (7-20), all talked about the role the home crowd- especially the student section- played during the contest against the Huskies. Rice said that he was inspired by the crowd's involvement in the game despite Miami letting the lead slip away midway through the second half. "They were in it the whole way," Rice said. "That pushed me even more. There was no doubt I was going to leave everything on the court."

The Hurricanes have five regular-season games remaining on their home schedule and will need all the support they can get in an attempt to revamp their season- and to get better. Even in victory, the Hurricanes were out-rebounded by Connecticut (36 to 32), had fewer free throw attempts (30 to 18) and besides Rice had just one player finish in double-figure points. Despite opposing teams constantly clamping down on Rice and Jones no other player has provided enough offensive for the Hurricanes. Freshman Robert Hite is third on the team with 7.0 points per game average.

Clark has repeatedly talked about the difficulties the Hurricanes have had in developing a third scoring option to ease the pressure off of Rice and Jones. He mentioned it again after the Hurricanes most recent victory. Clark, in his third year at the school, would also like to see the team doing a better job of defending the opponent's top offensive weapon and become for of a physical presence on the boards.

"We're still having too many breakdowns on defense. We have to do a better job of switching up on guys in order to prevent easy opportunities," said Clark, who is 48-28 at UM. "We also need to get to the line a little more."

Not an easy task against Syracuse.

The Orangemen, third in the West Division of the Big East entering tonight's game, are coming off a loss to No. 3 Pittsburgh after a 10-game winning streak. Syracuse's only other loss of the season was to Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York the first week of the season. Freshman Carmelo Anthony, a former standout at Oak Hill Academy in Baltimore, has attracted a lot of attention in his first season with the Orangemen. Anthony, a 6-8 forward, has been impressive with his ability to shoot from the perimeter as well as provide an inside presence for Syracuse. Anthony leads Syracuse in points (22.9) and rebounds (9.2) per game.

"I'm just one piece of the puzzle," says Anthony, who has been rumored to be on his way to the NBA as a lottery pick this summer. "I'm still learning and hopefully I can get a lot better. The rest is out of my hands."

Anthony was held to season-low in points (14) and rebounds (3) by Pittsburgh. Although finding other scoring options hasn't been too hard. Sophomore forward Hakim Warrick has added muscle to the frontcourt with 16.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. Freshman guard Gerry McNamara (15.4 points a game) has controlled the backcourt, while 6-6 senior Kueth Duany has also been productive (12.5 points a game).

Most of the Hurricanes players celebrated with the student section after Rice's game-winning shot against Connecticut. But once they made their way off the court reality had already set in. With three of their upcoming four opponents- Providence (9-7), St. John's (9-5) and Villanova (11-5)- sporting winning records, the Hurricanes understand there is still plenty of work ahead if they intend to play deep into March.

"We got ourselves into this position," said Rice. "We know we have a lot of work to do. This was a great win for us and hopefully we can use it as momentum for the rest of the season. I don't think some of our young guys understood when James and I were talking about the hole we dug ourselves. And were not out of it yet. We have to keep winning basketball games, period."

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