Syracuse (10-4, 1-0) had to hold on to the very end in their ACC opener, defeating Virginia Tech (8-6, 0-1) 68-66 in Blacksburg on Saturday. This after cruising to a 19 point halftime lead where the Orange looked dominant on both ends of the floor.
The Hokies came out aggressive in the second half, outscoring Syracuse 21-7 through the first 12 minutes. They trimmed the lead to as little as two, and had chances to tie the game, but could never do so.
In fact, after Syracuse stumbled at the free-throw line down the stretch going just 6-15, Virginia Tech had a three-pointer in the air at the buzzer which would have won the game. The shot fell short, however, and Syracuse escaped with a road win.
"In the second half, I thought our defense was pretty good," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "We'd get a deflection or get a loose ball and we couldn't get the ball. We couldn't get to it. We didn't rebound it in the second half like we did in the first half. They got second opportunities. On offense, we really got some good shots. We missed a few around the basket. You have to keep scoring on the road.
"Really anywhere but especially on the road. You have to keep scoring. We just, really, did not score, could not score for periods of time. Really, at the end, when it got down to two, we made a really good play to get Rak the ball. A good play for Tyler for the corner jumper. We made two free throws and got some separation. Once we got separation, they made some long threes. We've got to do a better job of making them drive."
The Orange went inside early and often in the first half, dominating on the boards and at the rim. Rakeem Christmas finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and three blocks, and Tyler Roberson came off the bench to notch his third double-double of the season with 11 points and 17 boards.
Both were critical parts of a 16-2 first half run that helped give them a 42-23 halftime advantage. Trevor Cooney was hot in the first half, making two of his first three from beyond the arc. He struggled with his shot the rest of the game, however, finishing just 6-21 from the field (4-13 from distance).
"In the first half, I'll talk about something I like, we played really, really good on both ends of the court," Boeheim said. "We gave them three early threes, and then we got the three-point line guarded and they didn't make any threes. We moved the ball, we attacked their pressure when it was there. We were quick to the ball."
Playing without starting center Joey Van Zegeren, Virginia Tech was forced to go to Shane Henry and Satchel Pierce. Both battled foul trouble all game and ultimately fouled out. Freshman guard Justin Bibbs led the Hokies with a game-high 22 points on 7-14 shooting and added 11 rebounds.
Syracuse predictably won the rebounding battle 41-34, but were not nearly as dominant in the second half. Virginia Tech made a big adjustment, crashing inside defensively every time the Orange pushed the ball into the lane. This flustered Syracuse and got their offensive out of rhythm.
The win pushes Syracuse to 10-4 on the season, 1-0 in ACC play.
WHAT WE LIKED: Syracuse took advantage of their size edge inside, frequently feeing Rakeem Christmas. He finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Tyler Roberson was clutch as well, scoring 11 points and grabbing 16 rebounds (eight of which were on the offensive end). Syracuse also had good ball movement in the first half, and finished with 15 assists on 23 made baskets. They limited their turnovers as well, only committing eight such infractions.
WHAT WE DIDN'T LIKE: Syracuse opened the second half very lackadaisical. They were outscored by the Hokies 21-7 through the first 12 minutes, allowing Virginia Tech to get back into the game. To top it off, they were 6-15 from the charity stripe over the last three minutes. That gave Virginia Tech a three-point attempt at the buzzer that would have won the game.
KEY MOMENT: With Syracuse up by two and only 4.3 seconds remaining, Ron Patterson went to the free-throw line with a chance to seal the victory. He missed both attempts, however, and Virginia Tech quickly moved the ball up the court. They found a man in the corner for a three-pointer at the buzzer. If it had fallen, the Hokies would have come away with an unlikely victory. The shot fell short, however, as three Syracuse defenders were in the shooter’s face as the ball was released.
QUOTABLE: "The free-throws, those two guys are good free-throw shooters. We've got to make them in those situations."
-- Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim
"We've just got to keep playing our defense. In the second half, we didn't play the defense that we was playing in the first half and they started scoring. We just needed to put the ball on the rim in the second half. We've just got to go out there and play hard, play our game and we'll be fine."
-- Syracuse senior center Rakeem Christmas
"I was just playing hard and good things happened. I got some buckets off of that and some offensive rebounds. I just tried to continue with it and stay consistent throughout the whole game."
-- Syracuse sophomore forward Tyler Roberson
"A win is a win. The last times we were in a close game, we lost. It feels good to be in a close game at the end and win. But when you're up 20 points, in the second half you've got to close them out. We've got to make foul shots at the end. If we would have made foul shots at the end it would have been a different story. We made shots in the first half and didn't make shots in the second half. I think our defense was better in the first half than it was in the second half. We're still learning. Good teams play for 40 minutes and that's something that we have to expand on and do more."
-- Junior guard Trevor Cooney
STATS OF THE DAY: Syracuse shot only 39% from the floor, 29% from three-point range and only 57% from the free-throw line. After starting out hot in the first half, Syracuse went cold in the second. They poured in 43 points in the first frame and only 26 in the final one. Conversely, they allowed Virginia Tech to go 10-25 from beyond the three-point arc.
KEY PLAYERS: Tyler Roberson, Syracuse - Roberson crashed the boards hard with 17 rebounds, eight of which came on the offensive end of the floor. He was physical, aggressive and took advantage of the lack of bigs on the floor for Virginia Tech. He also added 11 points, some of which were at critical points in the second half to help stave off the Hokies. That includes a baseline jumper and some free-throws over the last several minutes of the game when Virginia Tech was charging.
Justin Bibbs, Virginia Tech - The freshman guard is going to be a good one for the Hokies. He scored 22 points and snatched 11 rebounds as the best player for Virginia Tech on Saturday. He hit 7 of his 13 attempts overall, including four of his eight three-pointers. Bibbs is a deadly shooter who has a lot of upside.
UP NEXT: Syracuse faces Georgia Tech, once again on the road, on Wednesday, January 7th at 7:00pm.
Jim Boeheim Post-Game Video: