SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Starting slow and finishing strong seems to be the recipe thus far for the Orange (10-3), with an 80-67 victory over Texas Southern. Syracuse was able to manage only a 10 point lead at the half and were tied 22-22 with just under five minutes to play in the opening session.
“Texas Southern really competed tonight and took it right to us,” said interim Head Coach Mike Hopkins. “We’ve been trying to get the point across to our team, on our end, the importance of defense. You’re not there to trade baskets; you’re there to get stops.”
The Orange certainly traded baskets at times with Texas Southern. Syracuse allowed the Tigers to shoot 50.9% from the field, including 42.1% (8-19) from the 3-point line. Ultimately the laws of physics will determine a make or miss, however late shot contests and open looks provide for a much better probability for converting all around the floor.
This Texas Southern team, which has not played a home game this season or worn their home jerseys except for a November tournament, will not be an easy out in the Southwestern Conference, especially with the play of football and basketball star Derrick Griffin. He entered today’s game at 16.6 points per game, and exceeded his average with 20 points against Syracuse.
Griffin has only played in five games, following the conclusion of the Tiger football season, but he has propelled Texas Southern in their last five losses as they have never fell by more than 13 points. His five alley-oop dunks and lay-ins continually killed the Orange zone on the back line.
“He (Griffin) is very athletic and can catch lobs,” Hopkins said. “With any good defense you are going to give up things (high post, baseline) and our center plays a little out of position in our zone, you just have to pick your poison. Griffin is a live body and one of the best offensive rebounders out there.”
The athleticism of Derrick Griffin forced the ‘Cuse to make adjustments in the second half and that is when, although not in convincing fashion, the Orange began to pull away. DaJuan Coleman in many ways was the catalyst again leading to the victory. His quiet first half saw only four minutes of play highlighted by four points and not a single rebound. But, he turned it on in the second half with 16 more minutes on the floor, scoring 10 more points for a total of 14.
Coleman made sure to pull down seven rebounds as well in the second frame, and was four for five shooting and six for seven from the free-throw line. These numbers are certainly what he and the coaching staff have been looking for.
“It feels good to play that well, but we still have work to do,” said Coleman. “We need a good day of practice to get ready for Pitt, but I will still have the same mindset to score when I can, grab rebounds and play defense.”
The attitude in the locker room seemed just that. Speculation would say that Coach Hopkins and his staff were certainly pleased with the win, but not with the overall effort. However, bright spots continue to show with the play of Franklin Howard off the bench. He was able to add six points tonight and one assist in 19 minutes of play. Howard’s minutes were slim when Head Coach Jim Boeheim was on the sidelines earlier in the season, but he has been worked in steadily in the Orange rotation throughout non-conference play in late December.
“I like that my minutes have been picking up a little bit, especially heading into ACC play,” Howard said. “They recruited me as the point guard, and I knew that was my position. When I am out there at the one, Mike (Gbinije) is so versatile at the two or the three, it just gives (opponents) a different look.”
Confidence and strategy such as that is undoubtedly what the Orange needs heading into a gauntlet of early conference play which begins this Wednesday against long-time Big East rival and current ACC foe, the Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt is unranked, however have started out 10-1. It is always difficult to play at the Petersen Events Center, as Jamie Dixon and his team historically provide some of the most physical basketball that Syracuse sees annually.
The Oakland Zoo cheering section will likely be absent with students on break, but the Panthers made sure to bring the brutal Big East style to the ACC since their entry in 2013. Look to really evaluate the ‘Cuse after a road game at #13 Miami (10-1, Jan. 2) and at home against Clemson (7-5, Jan. 5), before Coach Boeheim’s return at home against #7 North Carolina (10-2, Jan. 9).
Syracuse knows that the effort level must increase greatly, as well as their passion within each possession. The soft under belly of non-conference play is over and the ACC games ahead will increase your positioning and maturation for post season play come March. DaJuan Coleman could be one of those answered questions as the competition and intensity escalates in just three days.
“We need DaJaun when he has those eyes and be in that zone like he was today,” said Coach Hopkins. “We need that seven rebounds in 20 minutes, so when we go against guys in our league, he (Coleman) is battling, banging and tiring those guys out.”
Malachi Richardson was seeing trainers after the game due to his fall late in the second half. No word on his condition immediately.
In reference to Texas Southern not playing home yet this season: several teams in the SWAC and other very small conferences play few home games prior to their conference play beginning. This is due to the fact that their underfunded athletic departments desperately need the appearance checks they receive from playing against wealthier NCAA programs such as Syracuse. These game checks can amount to greater than $100,000 depending on the opponent or the venue.
Wednesday’s first ACC game at Pittsburgh will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 9 p.m.