Rakeem Christmas had two subpar games in a row, shooting just 32% from the floor while averaging nine points against the likes of Boston College and Duke. Syracuse’s leading man had been a pillar of strength throughout the season as one of the nation’s best big men.
But Rakeem proved that Christmas cam come again in February with one of the best performances of his remarkable senior campaign.
Going up against Montrezl Harrell and a trio long, athletic Louisville bigs, Christmas was the best player on the floor. He poured in 29 points on 9-10 shooting, snatched eight rebounds, blocked four shots and came away with two steals.
”It’s a big battle in there,” Christmas said. “We’re always fighting and everyone’s pushing around on the court, but the refs were just letting it go so you have to play through it. That’s what we did tonight.”
Christmas took over down the stretch, scoring 16 of his points over the final 13 minutes, helping the Orange turn a 43-40 deficit into a 10 point victory. He also grabbed five rebounds and blocked two shots during that same stretch while making 9 of 10 free throws.
”He was great tonight,” head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He finished everything down there. He was spectacular in the low-post. He was great defensively. He had just a spectacular game.”
Christmas got position all night, battled through contact, used exceptional footwork to get good looks and converted on opportunities he missed in the previous two games. From 32% shooting to 90%, he certainly bounced back to lead his team to the quality win this team so desperately wanted.
”We knew we had to dig down deep and be ready for a game like this and it happened,” Christmas said. “We talked about it before the game and we knew if it came down to this, the team that hustled the most. That’s what we had to do tonight was hustle and that’s what we did.”
He did all of that offensively while controlling the paint inside for most of the night. Rak helped the Syracuse defense hold Louisville to just 32% shooting in the second half. That includes holding Montrezl Harrel to just 2-6 shooting after starting 4-4.
This season for the senior center has been quite unbelievable when consider he never averaged more than six points and five rebounds per game in his first three years on The Hill. In only 11 more minutes per game, Christmas’ scoring is up nearly 13 points while his rebounds have improved by more than four each outing.
Despite the lack of national recognition, Christmas has become one of the best players in the ACC, one of the best in the country and is having arguably the best season by a Syracuse center in school history. On Wednesday, he added another brilliant chapter to his story.
"He struggled against Duke but he didn’t get the calls that he normally gets," Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. "He is the most feared low-post player in the country. That is a tremendous credit to him and the Syracuse coaching staff. When he was a freshman, you could leave him alone, unless he dunked the ball, and he couldn’t score.
"That’s a credit to him; he’s probably put himself into the middle or late first round because of how hard he’s worked; he could be a terrific power forward at the professional level and I can’t tell you how happy I am for the man because I know he had to put a lot of work to get to that point."