SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It wasn't always pretty, and in fact was ugly at times with a lot of misses around the rim in the first half, but Syracuse started the season on the right foot after they turned things around after halftime. Led by B.J. Johnson off the bench and true freshman Chris McCullough, who scored the first points of the season for the Orange, Syracuse used a 22-2 run in the first half and a Rakeem Christmas led 18-6 run in the final frame to knock off Kennesaw State 89-42 inside the Carrier Dome Friday night.
Even while the offense was not clicking, the defense was. The rotations in the zone, specifically along the back line, were much better than in the exhibition games. That allowed Syracuse to stay a comfortable distance ahead of the Owls despite shooting, at one point, around 20% from the floor.
“The key to tonight was that we were much better on defense," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "We were moving much better on defense. The Carelton game helped us a lot, and got us thinking early about what we have to do on defense. When we are playing bad on offense like in the first half, our defense is good enough to hold us in there. That’s important.“
The advantage Syracuse had on the inside was clear and the plan was to utilize that edge. The Orange threw the ball to Christmas and McCullough in the post routinely early on. While Syracuse had some good looks, they couldn't find the bottom of the net.
"Our shots around the basket were a little anxious in the first half," Boeheim said. "In the second half we slowed down a little bit. We got the ball really in the same places and finished. Once we finished in on the inside, the perimeter opened up and we made those. You’re going to make some mistakes, and hopefully we will learn from them and come back Sunday.”
Johnson entered the game in the first half with Syracuse struggling from the field and gave the offense a much needed jolt. He finished 4-6 shooting in the half with 11 points to go along with six rebounds. It was a career night for Johnson, who finished with 19 points on 7-11 shooting, adding eight rebounds and four assists to his total. The 19 points were five more than Johnson scored all of last season.
“B.J. did a good job," Boeheim said. "He got a couple good looks and offensive rebounds. He had a very nice game. He’s a good player, a good shooter. We did a much better job in the second half getting the ball in the same places we did in the first, but just finishing."
The sophomore forward saw significant minutes as versatile sixth man Michael Gbinije did not play. He was seen in street clothes when the team came out of the locker room. Jim Boeheim, after the game, would not elaborte, simply saying that Gbinije will be back on Sunday when Syracuse faces Hampton.
“I think every time we get an opportunity," Johnson said, "our job is to just give the team a spark by playing good defense and knocking down open shots when the time comes.”
McCullough also chipped in 11 in the first half on his way to 16 for the game. The freshman sensation was very good in his debut, filling up the box score with 16 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, three steals and a block. He showed his array of offensive weapons by driving the lane, scoring in the post and hitting jumpers.
“[Chris] McCullough was good tonight," Boeheim said. "He just has to finish around the basket. He just has to get used to being around there. It takes time. He is active. He gets his hands on balls, because he’s long.
Senior center Rakeem Christmas took over early in the second half as the Orange fed him possession after possession in the low block. The combination of Christmas and McCullough inside was too much for the undersized Owls to handle. Christmas led all scorers with 21 points, all but four of which came after intermission, adding nine rebounds and two blocks.
"They pushed him out too far in the first half. He had to take shots a lot of places he isn’t used to taking in practice. He was getting the shots in the first half that they wanted to get him, in the second half he took the shots that we needed him to get. If he’s around the basket, he’s going to finish or get fouled."
The Syracuse defense was strong all game, holding Kennesaw State to under 35% shooting from the floor and just 5-20 from beyond the arc. The Orange also controlled the boards 56-26 and forced 25 Owl turnovers.
The Orange will look to start the season 2-0 when they face Hampton on Sunday for a 4:00pm Carrier Dome tip.
Jim Boeheim Post-Game: