SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Struggling to hit key shots in the first half, the Syracuse Orange relied on two key facets of the game to pull away from Cornell in the Orange’s 61-44 win on New Year’s Eve in the final non-conference match-up of the season.
Clamping down defensively, the Orange smothered the Big Red for much of the game. With the stifling zone defense wreaking havoc, Syracuse relied on senior center Rakeem Christmas to take over in the second half.
Coming out on fire to start the second half, the Orange pulled away early and never really looked back. Christmas was a perfect 5-of-5 shooting in the second half, including converting two straight turnaround hook shots from the left block while being double- and triple-teamed on back-to-back possessions.
On the night Christmas finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and one steal to lead the Orange. He was one rebound shy of his third consecutive double-double this season.
“They stopped double teaming [Christmas] him, so we just went to him and he scored,” head coach Jim Boeheim said. “Early they double-teamed him and then they stopped and he had a good match-up down there and he finished. He was very, very good today. He made about four or five in a row, I think, down low.
“He was good - very good today - and they were good looking for him and getting him the ball.”
With Christmas dominating down low, his presence opened up space for junior guard Trevor Cooney and junior forward Michael Gbinije to work. After a slow start that saw Cooney miss a handful of his early shots, he was able to knock down big shots in the second half while applying heavy pressure in the zone that led to easy transition buckets.
Cooney finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in another overall performance that should be a sign of things to come once conference play starts Jan. 3 against Virginia Tech.
As Christmas, Cooney and Gbinije have started to get rolling for the Orange offensively, the defense has gotten much better in the past few games, which showed up against Cornell by limiting the Big Red to just 12 points at the half. Cornell’s top two players in forward Shonn Miller and guard Galal Cancer combined for just 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting.
“We had to keep up on our defense,” Christmas said. “In the beginning of the second half we started slacking on defense and they started to come back so we turned it up. We have to come out and play hard. Everyone was aggressive tonight. Everyone was playing good and we’re going to have to carry that into the next game.”
The Orange will need to be aggressive defensively against a Buzz Williams-coached Virginia Tech team. With an aggressive defense, it could lead to easy offense, which would give Syracuse the start they’re looking for to open up ACC play.
“We finished the year playing very well the past few games and now we will get ready for conference play Saturday,” Boeheim said. “We have come through this about as well as we could have expected at this stage of the year. We are playing much better and we look forward to getting ready for conference play on Saturday.”