Powered by guards Michael Gbinije, Kaleb Joseph and Trevor Cooney, the Orange fought back from a 12-4 deficit just three minutes into the game to take control of a game that seemed to be slipping away from the opening tip.
With senior center Rakeem Christmas on the bench with three fouls for a portion of the run, Gbinije, Joseph and Cooney took over as playmakers for Syracuse by getting to the rim with relative ease and knocking down open jumpers when the looks were there.
“I think we had to grow up a little bit [with Christmas on the bench,]” Joseph said. “Guys got assertive. They didn’t put their heads down. They stepped up, and everyone rallied behind that. I think we grew up a little bit as a team tonight. “
As the offense clicked with Christmas on the bench, the defense continued to stifle the Eagles in the first half forcing the Eagles to settle for 3-point attempts instead of getting into the paint. At the half the Eagles were shooting just 32.4 percent from the floor (35 percent from beyond the arc) yet trailed by 18.
The Orange went on separate runs of 11-0 and 14-0 within the final 12 minutes of the half to take a 35-17 lead into the locker room, while also limiting the Eagles to just eight points in the final 15 minutes of the period.
“I thought our defense was exceptional tonight, especially in the first half,” head coach Jim Boeheim said.
After a media timeout, Gbinije, Cooney and Joseph took over again. Gbinije and Cooney splashed a 3-pointer and Joseph continuously got to the free throw line. On the night the freshman finished 9-for-11, including the final two free throws of the night to seal the win.
With his performance against the Eagles, Joseph now has two straight games scoring in double figures and looks much more comfortable facilitating the offense compared to earlier in the season.
"I think I was a little bit more aggressive than I have been previously," Joseph said. "I just tried to take what the defense was giving me and get into the lane and make plays for myself and my teammates. I think when I become a threat to score it opens up passing lanes.
“If I'm not aggressive then I think guys can stay on my teammates and play off me a little bit, but if I'm looking to score then it opens up my teammates."
Overall, the win over the Eagles was impressive considering the fact that Christmas played just 23 minutes and spent large portions on the bench, which forced younger guys to step up and carry the team to the win.
“At times I definitely tried to assert myself offensively,” Gbinije said. “I tried to get in the paint and tried to pretend I’m Rak, but we came out with a win. I was aggressive tonight, and hopefully we can just continue things.”
Syracuse will look to pick up their sixth ACC win of the season against the visiting Miami Hurricanes, Saturday, at 4:00 p.m.