The move sparked a 12-0 run over the next 3:10, culminated by a rebound and coast-to-coast drive by Paul Harris, who used his speed and strength to knife between Marcus Dove and JamesOn Curry for a score. Syracuse was now down by only one point with 47 seconds left to play. That meant they would have at least one last possession, so it became imperative to hold OSU to two points or less.
The end game strategy of Boeheim and Sutton served as a perfect example of the chess match that is coaching. After mounting the furious rally with man-to-man pressure defense, the Orange fell back into the 2-3 zone for the most crucial possession of the game. Sutton appeared to be completely undaunted by the switch. In fact, judging by his team's reaction, it looked as though he actually expected it.
Needing a single shot to seal the victory for the ‘Pokes, Sutton called for a double screen against the top of the SU zone to set up JamesOn Curry for an open three pointer. After the inbounds, Curry held the ball about 35 feet out and the zone allowed 15 precious seconds to tick away. When Curry made his move, the play was executed to perfection and both Harris and Wright were unable to fight through the screens set by Marcus Dove and David Monds. Curry had all the time in the world to square up and drain a 25 footer from the top of the key. Checkmate Sutton.
This was a classic example of "hope for the best" coaching. Rather than rewarding his players with an opportunity to dictate the game's final outcome, Boeheim instead preferred to fall back into his comfort "zone" and made the switch every knowledgeable ‘Cuse fan knew he would make. We've all seen this movie before – the crazy comeback catalyzed by man-to-man defense to pull even in the game, the fall back into the zone for the final play, and then the late game dagger by a Darius Lane or a Keith Friel or a Keith Smart… The list goes on and on.
Now, instead of talking about how heroic the Orange players were in comeback, we are treated with another woulda, coulda, shoulda discussion.
To be sure, this Orange team doesn't seem to relish playing the zone. Apparently, standing around on defense begets standing around on offense. SU played most of the game within comfortable striking distance of OSU until midaway through the second half, when a flurry of SU turnovers allowed the ‘Pokes to get out in transition and score quick baskets. Most of the miscues came due to poor court spacing (standing around on offense) and lazy interior passing.
The Cowboys are a team full of long, strong, and mobile athletes. Marcus Dove and Terrel Harris, in particular, gave SU fits all evening with their aggressive defense and active hands. SU coughed the ball up a total of 23 times, but OSU wasn't any better, making 22 ballhandling blunders themselves.
One of the common themes of the night was Syracuse's inability to hold on to the ball when pressured or bumped. Another big problem was that several times multiple SU plays would fight for the same rebound, only to have it tip off their hands into the hands of an OSU player. Usually, that player was Mario Boggan, who turned in a stellar 21 point, 8 rebound effort against the SU frontline.
Boggan got things started for OSU by scoring their first nine points on a variety of interior moves. He also added three midrange jumpers from the baseline over the course of the evening. Boggan's other partner in crime was 6-3 JR G JamesOn Curry, who scored 20 points, mostly from the perimeter. He displayed several beautiful up-fake/side step moves to get by SU's perimeter zone defenders, then drilled the resulting open jumpers with regularity. OSU took a five point led into the break mostly on the strength of Curry and Boggan's play.
Syracuse, meanwhile, stayed in the game behind Demetris Nichols, who put up 13 first half points. Nichols hit several smooth pull-up jumpers and had a late tip-in basket to help SU stay within 4 points when it seemed that OSU was about to grab control. Terrence Roberts also helped out quite a lot on offense, making 6 of 9 shots on the evening to finish with 14 points and 7 rebounds.
Conspicuously absent in the first half were Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris. Devendorf appears to be recovering from recent food poisoning, and once again looked lethargic and slow on the court. After nine inefficacious first half minutes, Devo spent the remainder of the game on the bench. Harris, on the other hand, just looked lost. He scored only 2 first half points and had difficulty seeing the floor against defenders like Marcus Dove and Terrel Harris.
For about 36 minutes, Harris was a complete detriment to the team. Most of his team high 7 turnovers came during OSU's second half run, but something seemed to happen when he was allowed to play man-to-man defense late in the game. Suddenly he went from timid and scared freshman to overpowering manchild. Harris and Nichols scored all 12 of SU's points during the late game run that nearly brought Syracuse to victory.
Nichols, who finished with 26 points, got a key steal and turned it into a three point play in transition. Harris then used his physicality to draw several fouls, and he converted 5 of 6 free throws in the second half. Harris also grabbed a loose ball and found Nichols on the wing for another triple. One benefit of going to man-to-man is that it seemed to naturally spread the floor out more and Harris is at his best in the open court, transitioning quickly from defense to offense.
The final statline for the Beast was 11 pts, 6 reb, 1ast, and 3 steals. The amazing thing is that 90% of these numbers came in the game's final 4 minutes. SU fans were treated to an early view of Harris's shear will to win. While it didn't come to fruition last night, there will be games this year when Harris simply will not allow the Orange to lose. He clearly still has a lot of work to do to figure out how to consistently perform at this level, but it is obvious that he is a major talent who will contribute to many, many victories in his Orange career.
Outside of the late game zone debacle, the turnovers, and the Nichols/Harris show – the other key story was rebounding (or lack thereof). As good as Nichols was on offense, he struggled to grab missed shots against Boggan, Monds, and Dove. Each of these players was more physical than the SU frontcourt players.
Watkins was also a culprit here, hauling in only one missed shot. In fact, with the exception of Roberts and Harris, no other Orange(man) recorded more than a SINGLE rebound. In contrast, OSU's diminutive starting PG Byron Eaton grabbed 4 defensive boards, most of them over the SU frontcourt. In total, the Orange played to a -10 on the boards (23 to 33).
Despite the turnovers and poor rebounding, there were still a lot of positives in this game. First, Nichols shook off his terrible performance from Saturday and played with passion and confidence. Second, the Orange once again showed that they can mount a comeback and play with intensity for short stretches. Third, SU was able to keep the game close despite getting nothing from Devendorf or any bench player not named Paul Harris.
Cutting down on the turnovers and improving the defensive rebounding are things that can be addressed with good coaching and players that are willing to listen. It remains to be seen if this team can make these adjustments, but there is still plenty of time. It is obvious that the Orange have a very physically talented team and many "pieces" which could come together for a strong year, but at the same point they are not properly meshing right now.
One thing is for certain, if the last two games are any indication, it looks like the Orange are going to give the fans some exciting games this year. Hopefully they can figure out how to starting pulling them out in the end.