Near-Historic Comeback Falls Short

The Wichita State Shockers handed Syracuse its first loss on the season, beating the Orange 64-61 in front of 23,000 fans at the Carrier Dome. The Shockers opened a 35-12 first half lead and withstood a furious lategame comeback that saw SU tie the game with 1:51 left. Paul Harris led the Orange with 14 points but was scoreless during the first half.

Demetris Nichols came out of nowhere to make the play. The Syracuse senior, whose defense was instrumental during a comeback from a 17 point second half deficit, lunged by his opponent and intercepted a crosscourt pass with 23 seconds left in the game. As he streaked down the court with the ball, it looked like Nichols would give the ‘Cuse its first lead of the game at 63-62. He rose up for the breakaway layup, but inexplicably, he missed…

No doubt this single play will be broadcast on every sports highlight show and will raise the hackles of Orange fans far and wide. But truth be told, even if Nichols had made that shot, Syracuse did not really deserve to win this game. The Carrier Dome faithful were treated to an exhilarating comeback bid, seeing the home team rally from 17 down with just over 5 minutes to play, but Wichita State simply owned the other 35 minutes.

The Shockers outhustled, outshot, outpassed, and outdefended the Orange for a majority of the evening. They played a smart and patient brand of hoops, sharing the ball to the tune of 17 assists on 24 baskets. They exploited SU's poor perimeter defense in the first half, hitting 7 threes on 17 attempts, and also burned the 2-3 zone for two point-blank layups on inbounds plays.

Matt Braeuer reacts to the Shockers' victory.

Still, the Syracuse comeback was a beautiful and exiting thing to behold. Down 59-42 with 6:25 left in the game, freshman Paul Harris pulled in a defensive rebound and raced down the court like he was shot out of a cannon. The burst of speed put him past the Shocker defense and he exploded to the hoop for a monstrous one-handed tomahawk. The launch point was maybe two feet inside the free throw line. The result was breathtaking.

This play served as the ignition point for the rally. Although Kyle Wilson would answer with a jumper to re-establish WSU's 17 point lead, the Carrier Dome crowd was once again treated to some aerial acrobatics when Josh Wright found Mike Jones for another impressive tomahawk.

It was like a switch had been flipped. The Orange(men) were suddenly rejuvenated after having played in such a listless and lethargic manner all evening. Switching out of the stagnant 2-3 zone into a vigorous man to man defense seemed to be the key. Suddenly Roberts started to own the defensive glass, Watkins began to block shots left and right, Nichols started to snag errant passes, Wright began to showcase his open court speed, and Paul Harris started to take over.

Harris was largely the focal point of the comeback. He scored 14 second half points, posting up and overpowering the smaller Sean Ogirri. Harris scored in transition and he scored on drives through traffic. He even hit his very first collegiate three pointer, after starting off "ohfer November".

Paul Harris nails his first three pointer of the season.

Unfortunately for SU, Harris was all but invisible in the first half with a goose-egg in the scoring column. This type of maddening inconsistency plagued the Orange all night. For once, the ‘Cuse started the game scoring with ease to open up an 11-8 lead in under three minutes. But a pair of three pointers by PJ Couisnard and Kyle Wilson caused Boeheim to ditch the man-to-man defense and call for the zone, and suddenly the switch was thrown again.

Eric Devendorf and Josh Wright both struggled to get out on shooters, and Wilson hit two more uncontested three pointers. When the SU defense did challenge the perimeter, Ogirri and Matt Braeuer found the interior passing lanes wide open and Phillip Thomasson (11 pts) got position on Darryl Watkins for easy scores. As soon as the WSU offense got revved up, the SU offense stalled. Totally. Completely.

The end result was the drought to end all droughts. The Sahara sees more rainstorms than the Orange saw open shots. Josh Wright and Eric Devendorf became turnover central and Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts couldn't buy a basket. From the 16:50 mark to the 5:47 mark, the Shockers went on a 27-1 run. No, that's not a misprint. One point in 11 minutes. Syracuse was outscored by 26 for a stretch of time that made up slightly more than 1/4th of the ENTIRE game.

Leading the way for Wichita State were Sean Ogirri and Kyle Wilson (17 pts). Ogirri finished the game with 16 points and 3 assists. More importantly, he made great decisions against the Syracuse defense all game long, recording no turnovers. He did seem to fade at the game's end, missing his last 4 three point attempts, but his 4-8 start from beyond the arc was enough to hold over until the final buzzer.

Sean Ogirri and Paul Harris go head to head.

Getting back to the theme of inconsistency: after the horrific drought, Syracuse reeled off a 13-4 run to close out the first half, cutting the 35-12 deficit down to a more manageable 39-25 score at the break. The first glimmer of hope came on a transition dunk by Terrence Roberts. Josh Wright began the play with a slick no look pass to Mike Jones, who shoveled it to Roberts for the score.

Demetris Nichols was also a catalyst during the late first half run, hitting back-to-back threes in a span of 45 seconds. These would be his only baskets of the evening. Again, inconsistency is the theme. Take away those two triples and his shooting line was 0-12 from the field. On the plus side, Nichols made several key defensive plays down the stretch with a block, 3 steals, and 8 defensive boards.

Demetris Nichols reacts after missing a crucial layup at the game's end.

If you neglect the first half drought, the SU offense produced 24 points in 9 minutes. It seems unfathomable that a team capable of executing with precision for some stretches could also be so incapable of scoring for others.

Many of the offensive problems in the first half could be traced to obvious causes. Nichols wasn't hitting shots. Wright was turning the ball over too frequently. And Devendorf appeared to be in a near comatose state for most of the game. After scoring 5 early points, he seemed to disappear into a fog. His usual aggressive driving and slashing was replaced with a passive, almost disinterested approach, contributing to 4 turnovers and zero assists.

Somewhat obscured in the loss is the fact that Syracuse finally dominated the glass. They outrebounded the Shockers 47 to 34 with Roberts and Watkins each finishing in double figures. Nichols added 9 more. Watkins finished the game with a nice tidy 9 pt, 13 reb, 7 block effort, but his defensive lapses in the zone during the first half were very costly. He definitely redeemed himself in the second half when the team was in man to man defense.

Roberts also had his moments of inconsistency. The Tornado turned in a solid line with 14 points and 12 rebounds and even had an uncharacteristically decent game from the line (6-9 ft). However, he forced a lot of bad, bad shots during SU's first half meltdown.

The takeaway message from this game is clear: this Syracuse team has to develop some form of consistency or more upsets will follow. The "throw a switch" approach will allow them to come back from 14 down against Northeastern, but it won't work against the better teams in the country (of which WSU is clearly one).

Consistent play can come from consistent effort. Perhaps Paul Harris is an answer here. While Harris is not a bonafide scoring machine, he is a special talent that the Carrier Dome crowd seems to readily relate to. The team simply seems to play better when he's on the court.

Maybe it's time to think about getting Paul into the starting lineup to jumpstart the intensity and effort from the game's outset? If so, Boeheim would have a tough decision to make in terms of who loses their starting role, but 700+ wins suggests that this is the type of decision he is paid to make.

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