SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Bouncing back from his worst game of the season, senior center Rakeem Christmas turned in arguably his best game of his career to lead unranked Syracuse to an upset win over No. 12 Louisville, 69-59, Wednesday at the Carrier Dome.
Coming off of the loss to Duke in which he scored just 11 points on 5-of-17 shooting, Christmas was locked in from the opening tip-off against the Cardinals. Featuring his go-to sky hook from the right block and power dunks in transition, he bullied his way to 29 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals and 1 assists while besting Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell in a matchup of two of the best big men in the ACC.
Without a second-half collapse that saw the Cardinals shoot just 32 percent from the floor and give up 41 points, Louisville would have bounced back from a tough loss to NC State, Saturday. But foul trouble, poor shooting and a lack of depth without the suspended Chris Jones factored into their third loss in four games, including two straight after leading at the half.
Plus, Christmas was just too much to handle in the second half while the Orange defense turned in their best 20-minute stretch of basketball after the break.
Despite trailing at the half, the Orange clamped down defensively while relying on their own big three to propel them to a win that many didn’t expect. Holding the Cardinals to just 32 percent from the floor while forcing Wayne Blackshear to foul out opened up room for Gbinije and Roberson to go to work from the elbow. Roberson scored 13 points, hauled in 9 rebounds and added two blocks while playing physical defense against Harrell when he wasn’t matched up with Christmas.
Gbinije chipped in with 18 points, 6 assists and made a spectacular play chasing down Terry Rozier III for a block on a dunk attempt in transition. Jim Boeheim described it as one of the top plays of the night on SportsCenter.
But the most spectacular player was Christmas, whose efficient night led to high praise from teammates, his coach and even Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
"He is the most feared low-post player in the country," Pitino said. "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."
Although the professional level is some time away, it was easy to see why Pitino praised the senior for his performance on the big stage. Willing his team to win with 18 second-half points, Rak capped it off with some big dunks in transition while knocking down his free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
The biggest difference in Christmas’ game against the Cardinals was that he established great position early and did just about anything he wanted to down low once Harrell got in foul trouble. It was the type of performance Orange fans dreamed of against one of the better front courts in the country with Louisville.
"He was spectacular, he finished everything down there," Boeheim said. "He was great defensively as well. He just had a spectacular game. He was effective down there, he changed some shots and he blocked some shots.
“He made some really hard post moved against a 6-foot-10 guy down there while they were doubling him still. He had a great game tonight, he was tremendous tonight."
Outside of Christmas, Gbinije and Roberson, the biggest key for Syracuse was their ability to hit free throws down the stretch. The same couldn’t be said earlier in the season when wins slipped away due to missed free throws. Against the Cardinals, the Orange hit 16-of-21 free throws, including seven of eight in the final 63 seconds to ice the win.
With the win Syracuse moves to 17-9 (8-5 ACC) while Louisville falls to 20-6 (8-5 ACC). The Orange will take on the Pittsburgh Panthers, Saturday, with tip-off set for noon from the Carrier Dome.