In many ways, this game was very reminiscent of last year's opening round loss to the Vermont Catamounts. Syracuse was unable to establish tempo and allowed the Aggies to dictate the style of play throughout. The major difference between the two games was that last year's team made a run to force overtime, while this year's team was unable to draw closer than 3 points down the stretch.
Eric Devendorf's three-pointer with 2:09 capped a 13-6 Orange run to bring SU within three at 51-48, but the Syracuse defense couldn't hold down the Aggies. Texas A&M responded to the run by ripping the SU press apart with back-to-back lay-ups by Acie Law. The first came on a deep pass that was thrown over the press, and the second came after Devendorf missed a forced, off-balanced three-pointer
Syracuse forward Demetris Nichols (5 pts, 9 reb) hit a three pointer from the wing to give the Orange a glimmer of hope, but Acie Law scored 6 more points over the next minute to essentially seal the Aggies' victory. Law finished the game with 23 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. He was joined in double figures by Joseph Jones, who managed 12 points and 7 rebounds in 40 minutes of play.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing about the SU loss was the fact that Gerry McNamara was not even on the court in the deciding minutes of the game. It was difficult to see a player of his stature, who had battled and played so hard throughout his career, to not even be a factor in crunchtime. McNamara, to his credit, would walk through a brick wall to represent the Orange, so if he was unable to play, one can only assume that his injury was completely debilitating. Indeed, it was readily apparent moments into the game that he had virtually no mobility on either end of the court.
Regardless of this painful loss, SU fans will have the lasting memories provided by the recent Big East Tournament Championship run. McNamara played such an inspiring roll during that four game stretch, but you have to wonder if his playing hurt in New York contributed to his inability to perform on Thursday night. He had not practiced with the team all week, and it showed in their lackluster effort.
From the game's outset, it became apparent that the 'Cuse did not have the same type of energy and enthusiasm that it did just last week. Texas A&M grabbed control of the game by outhustling the Orange on the offensive glass. The Aggies shot only 35.7% from the field on the evening, but grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to offset their poor shooting. Unlike last week, when UConn turned their offensive rebounds into rushed putback attempts, Texas A&M was content to pull the ball back and reset their offense.
This strategy proved to be a key difference in the game. The Aggies had multiple possessions where a missed field goal late in the shot clock was followed by an offensive rebound, reset, and another clock-milking. With the Orange playing catch-up, they could not afford to give up close to a minute on multiple possessions, but it happened several times. SU head coach Jim Boeheim tried to increase the game's tempo by going to a fullcourt press, but that only helped A&M maintain tempo.
The Aggies repeatedly broke Syracuse's press, and only turned the ball over 9 times during the course of the game. By repeatedly falling back into a zone defense after the failed pressure, SU played right into the hands of Billy Gillespies's club. This allowed the Aggies to regroup and continue stalling. It was SU-Vermont all over again.
Syracuse didn't help itself out by shooting 39.2% from the field. For a large part of the game, the Orange actually stayed within striking distance by getting to the free throw line and converting at a decent clip. But even that eventually fell apart and SU finished 14-21 from the charity stripe. Darryl Watkins made an impressive 6-8 from the line, but Roberts again struggled (4-8) and even 83% free-throw shooter Eric Devendorf missed the front end of a crucial 1-and-1 late in the first half.
The Orange conclude the season with a mediocre 23-12 record. Except for one magical week in New York, this was an otherwise forgetable season. Syracuse returns everyone but Gerry McNamara for next season, but it remains to be seen how the team will play without its emotional leader. Paul Harris is expected to step in and play big minutes next year, but his presence does not negate the fact the team will have major issues at the point guard position. Nor does it negate the fact that the Orange will employ the same frontcourt rotation that was so maddeningly inconsistent this year. Hopefully, Harris will serve as a rallying point for the team and provide a degree of leadership that was lacking on this year's squad. If he can't, then SU fans can expect more of the same next year.