SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas early and often for Syracuse.
Rakeem Christmas, that is.
For the second straight game the senior center was the most consistent player on the floor at both ends for the No. 24 Syracuse Orange in its 65-47 win in the second round of the 2K Classic.
In fact, Christmas nearly had his second career double-double before halftime as he had 10 points and 9 rebounds in 15 minutes of action in the first half. Much like the first game against Kennesaw State, the Orange went to its senior leader early and often against the Pirates.
Squared up with the Pirates center Jervon Pressley, Christmas had his most physical battle of the season so far. Despite the physical matchup, Christmas took control of the paint by displaying an impressive array of footwork and post moves that he hadn’t shown in his first three years in the blue and orange.
Coupled with freshman forward Chris McCullough, the duo continues to form a formidable front line that carries the Orange at both ends of the floor.
“We play a lot of high-low together,” Christmas said postgame while sporting a SpongeBob SquarePants backpack. “We play off of each other a lot and we space out well.”
Having the experience and size that he does, Christmas has emerged as the go-to guy for the Orange, which is something that was unheard of in the past. Last season the offense played through guys like C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis, but if the first four games (including the exhibition games) are any indication, Christmas is the guy that the Orange will lean on all season long.
“It’s a good feeling, especially after being here for four years,” Christmas said. “I’m getting the ball in the post a lot this year, so the guys play off of me. It’s up to me to find a shooter or look for my shot…that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Despite the impressive performance of Christmas for the second straight game, Jim Boeheim continues to stress the importance of the learning for the senior center as he’s become more of a focal point in the offense.
“Rak was good inside,” Boeheim said. “I thought he could have gotten to the basket a little bit better a couple of times in the second half, but it’s a process. He’s not used to getting the ball that much, so it’s going to take some time getting him used to the offense and where he’s supposed to be.”
Coming into the game Cooney had struggled from beyond the arc. Against Hampton it was much of the same, but he hit arguably the biggest shot of the game with the Orange up just five points midway through the second half. Following a media timeout, Cooney positioned himself at the top of the key and created space from his defender. With Tyler Roberson facilitating the offense at the time, the sophomore forward found Cooney with time and space.
Just 1-of-6 from beyond the arc at that point in the game, the junior guard didn’t hesitant to pull the trigger, rising up and sinking the 3-pointer that woke up a dormant Dome crowd.
From that point on Syracuse pulled away.
“Trevor was aggressive the whole game,” Boeheim said. “He hasn’t been getting a lot of great looks, but he’ll be fine. There’s no reason for anybody to be worried about Trevor Cooney.”
While Cooney struggled at times, Gbinije returned to his role as the first man off the bench for Syracuse following a one-game absence for undisclosed reasons.
Knocking down 3-pointers and playing stifling defense against the Pirates, Gbinije brought much-needed energy off the bench, but Boeheim wasn’t as pleased with his game overall.
“He missed some good shots; he took some shots that weren’t smart like the floater,” Boeheim said. “But, I thought he played well, the second half especially. He can score; he’s been scoring for us. That’s big for us. We need that down the stretch.”
For the Orange, Christmas finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds. Chris McCullough finished with 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks in the win, while Gbinije and Johnson chipped in 9 and 9 points respectively.
“We’ve still got some work to do,” Boeheim said. “But, it’ll be a great test. Both teams are very good; we know that.”