Syracuse Overcomes Sluggish Start

The Syracuse Orange improved to 6-0 on the season by posting an 81-71 victory over the Canisius Golden Griffins. The Orange pulled away late in the game after struggling for most of the first half. Canisius used hot perimeter shooting to open an early 15 point lead, but the 'Cuse eventually gained control of the game by scoring in transition and forcing numerous Canisius turnovers.

Well, Paul Harris warned his teammates that the game wouldn't be easy. He said that it would be a tough task to topple Canisius. Boy, how right he was. The Orange overcame yet another slow start to pick up an 81-71 victory, their sixth straight win by a double-digit margin. However, this game was not remotely similar to those other victories. In each of those other games, the Orange dominated the majority of the contest. Tonight, though, Syracuse found themselves with their collective back against the wall against the Golden Griffins, down by as many as 15 points less than 10 minutes into the game and not getting their first lead until the 18:12 mark of the second half when a Demetris Nichols triple and free throw put the Orange on top 42-41. It was a short lived lead, as the Orange quickly fell behind 47-42 when the under 16 television timeout hit after the intermission.

The Orange had a tough go of things from the outset yet again, falling behind by a 7-0 margin to the hot shooting Golden Griffins. Terrence Roberts snared a tough rebound and threw a full court strike to Nichols for the first Orange basket of the night just under two minutes into the ballgame, and after Paul Harris made an early entrance and scored on a putback to make it 7-4, Canisius got a trifecta to make it 10-4. The Orange struggled in several areas early, most notably on the defensive glass and in the halfcourt set. The offense looked stagnant early, with virtually no flow and sloppy play. On the defensive end of the floor, the athletically superior Orange struggled to keep Canisius off the glass, giving up several second chance opportunities that allowed the home team to get out to a 15-6 lead with 14:18 left in the first half.

Pawel Malesa nailed three of four triples over a two minute stretch to give Canisius a 26-13 lead midway through the first half. Syracuse cut it to a five point margin at the 4:26 mark after layups by Harris and Nichols, but the Golden Griffins pushed the lead back to seven on an Ola Matti layup. Eric Devendorf answered with a triple for the Orange, but a pair of Shaun James free throws made it a 33-27 game with 3:40 in the half. The Orange rode the active play of Roberts and Harris to cut the halftime deficit to 39-38 on free throws by Roberts, Harris, and Devendorf along with a dish from Harris to Mike Jones for an easy bucket with 11 seconds left before half.

Canisius shot the ball very well in the first half, knocking down 6-of-10 from beyond the arc, and the Orange struggled on the glass the entire 20 minutes. Second chance opportunities and lackadaisical play contributed to the deficit at half. Of the Syracuse players, only Roberts, Harris, and Wright were particularly productive before the break. Nichols, while getting his share of points, played the role of the invisible man, while Devendorf struggled in all facets of the game during the opening frame. Gorman, despite his hustle, was simply outworked in the first half of his second career start. Jones, who played sparringly, rushed two shots on the interior and missed badly both times, while Andy Rautins was decent in knocking down a triple before halftime.

The Orange took its first lead early in the second half when Nichols knocked down a trifecta and drew the foul, completing a four point play to give Syracuse a 42-41 lead just under two minutes out of the locker room. The lead did not last long, though, as second chance points led to the Golden Griffins taking a 45-42 lead with 16:55 to play. SU coach Jim Boeheim then contributed to the Golden Griffin lead when he received a technical foul leading to a pair of free throws to make it 47-42.

Despite the Orange struggles, the team came back to tie things up at 47 all after Wright found Roberts for an alley-oop on the break, drawing the foul in the process. Roberts knocked down the free throw, and after a great rebound by Gorman on the ensuing Canisius possession, Wright finished on the break to even the score. Canisius got back out to a 49-47 lead, but Nichols again delivered with a triple to make it 50-49 in favor of the Orange with 13:01 left in the game.

The Orange lead was extended to 52-49 on a tough bucket from Gorman, but another Canisius three by Chuck Harris tied things up again with 11:33 to play. Syracuse got out to its biggest lead at 59-54 on free throws by Harris and Gorman and layups by Wright and Devendorf, but another Chuck Harris triple made it 59-57 with 8:51 to play.

Devendorf scored seven straight to push it to a 68-59 lead with just under six minutes to play, and Wright fed Roberts for an easy dunk at the 5:13 mark to make it 70-59. The Golden Griffins got jumpers from Frank Turner and Chuck Harris, as well as a triple from Malesa and two buckets by Darnell Wilson down the stretch, but it was too little too late for the underdogs. Nichols knocked down a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to give the Orange its sixth double-digit win.

Nichols finished with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting, hitting three trifectas in the game and snagging six boards to go along with three steals, while Devendorf scored 17 in the win. Harris, who knocked down 9-of-10 free throws in the win against Charlotte, only managed to make 4-of-10 from the stripe en route to 12 points. Harris just missed his fourth double-double in six games, finishing with nine rebounds. Roberts ended with 12 points, eight boards, and two steals, and was a strong defensive presence throughout the game's entirety. Wright played a solid all-around game, scoring 11 points while handing out six assists and coming up with an impressive five steals.

While the game ended with the 'Cuse on top by double-digits, it was a contest that pointed out several flaws in the Orange armor. While the team has fantastic potential, there are still several areas in which it struggles mightily. First and foremost is on the boards, where the Orange were out-rebounded 45-27. The troubling thing is that Harris, Roberts, and Nichols combined for 23 of the teams 27 total boards. Clearly, the Orange miss Mookie Watkins. Watkins, while still not a polished player, provides a great presence in the paint and is a big, physical, and supremely athletic big man who knows how to board. The sooner he can recover from his broken nose and return to the Orange lineup, the better for Syracuse basketball.

Additionally, the offense simply had next to no flow throughout the bulk of the game. Aside from a few nice looking fast breaks, the team struggled with the ball. Turnovers were few, but poor shot selection at times along with a general lack of motion away from the ball led to some ugly offensive sets. To make matters worse, Devendorf, despite finishing with 17 points, had an overall disappointing game. He knocked down only 5-of-13 shots from the field and had perhaps his poorest floor game this season, forcing shots and looking shaky with his handle.

While Wright at times looked a bit out of control, he played one of his best games of the season. The junior was active and finally utilized his speed to get easy points, run the break, and draw Canisius fouls. Roberts earned the distinction of player of the game based not just on a solid stat line but on his overall presence in the game. For the full 40 minutes, the Jersey City native was far and away the most active player wearing Orange. He crashed the boards, he disrupted passing lanes, and he blocked shots. He made one or two tough shots inside, and he even knocked down a couple free throws, which is a feat for that senior that should be celebrated in its own right. Roberts was outstanding all game long.

If Paul Harris had any sort of a jump shot, he'd have to be considered one of the most complete players in the nation. It's just that simple. He's a fantastic talent, active on defense and capable both on the break and in the halfcourt setting, and during much of the game, even with Wright and Devendorf on the floor it was the freshman from Niagara Falls who did most of the ballhandling. He took (and missed) his ninth three point attempt of the season, and he needs to learn that he does not need to try to dunk everytime he drives the lane (two missed dunks in the game is not a good statistic, despite there being contact...finesse is not a bad thing, Paul), but overall he is probably the best player that Syracuse has.

Matt Gorman was more or less nonexistant in the early going, but in the second half Watertown's favorite son proved to be extremely valuable for the Orange, playing outstanding defense down the stretch. He made some free throws, made a tough bucket on the baseline, played great positional defense and defended screens exceptionally well. Nichols, who led the team in scoring, had 20 of the quietest points you'll ever see. He was obviously far from bad given his numbers, but despite those same solid all-around numbers, he did not do much to stand out. He missed several bunnies, and he disappeared for long stretches in which Do It All Paul and TRob carried the team. It's hard to say that someone with 20 points, six boards, and three steals could have done more, but this is a game where Nichols could have dominated and did not.

It's a disturbing trend this year that the Orange have had to consistently come from behind against lesser opponents like Northeastern, Charlotte, and Canisius. That trend seems to be fueled by the hot shooting of those opponents in the early going along with the dismal shooting and overall lazy play of the Orange to open games, which will hopefully be helped by the return of a true interior presence like Mookie Watkins, or could perhaps be helped by the insertion of Harris into the starting lineup. Either way, this team needs a serious jolt of energy to begin games, because if it finds itself down to a team like Wichita State, a squad that just knocked off No. 9 LSU, it might not be able to mount a comeback like it can against inferior teams.

Overall, the Orange can be happy with the win, but there are clearly areas in which the team could make drastic improvements. The bottom line is this: Canisius shot the hell out of the ball in the first half, the Orange couldn't make a free throw to save Juli Boeheim's life, and two of our best players, Devo and Nichols, played below average games despite their scoring numbers. Odds are Nichols and Devendorf will not play like that very often, and odds are the Orange will not miss as many free throws as they did tonight nor will they be out-rebounded by such a large margin, and the Orange will be fine from here on out. This game was a struggle for the Orange, but anytime a squad struggles and can still come out with a victory it should be viewed as a positive.

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