St. Bonaventure was able to cut the lead to 5 points on a Tyler Relph three-pointer with 3:02 left in the game, but Eric Devendorf answered with a driving layup that helped SU put a stop to a 9-4 Bonnies run. Devendorf played a huge roll in the second half, scoring 15 points after the break. It was the first time in a month that he looked comfortable, composed, and confident on the court.
Unfortunately, Anothony Soloman's team wouldn't go away and once again cut the lead down to 5 when little-used sub Tyler Benson hit another triple at the 1 minute mark. Demetris Nichols then came up with the play of the game when he rebounded a missed free throw from Harris and powered it up and in. From that point forward, Syracuse iced the victory with stellar free throw shooting.
The Bonnies actually led the game for much of the first half, thanks to a combination of poor SU offense and some pourous man to man defense. The Orange put on a dreadful long range shooting display, making only 2 of their first 16 long-range attempts. Nichols and Devendorf combined to hit three trifectas late in the second half, but even with these makes, SU shot only 5 for 20 from beyond the arc.
Once again, the first half offense was supplied by seniors Demetris Nichols and Darryl Watkins. Mookie got off to a hot start by sealing off opposing big man Paul Williams and catching crisp entry passes to the tune of three early dunks. Nichols wasn't quite as hot as in recent games, but he was still efficient enough to register 11 points before the break. The duo combined for almost 60% of Syracuse's first half points.
The rest of the team continued to struggle offensively. Rautins missed several open three pointers, Harris had two shots blocked, and Devendorf once again looked out of sync. Devendorf drew Boeheim's ire after hucking up a long three-point attempt on a play designed to go inside to Watkins. He did manage one nice bankshot early in the game, but he closed out the first half with another driving miss. For most of the first half, it seemed that Devendorf had largely lost his touch around the basket. To make matters worse, he also struggled on the defensive end, giving up 5 quick points to Tyler Relph mid-way through the first stanza when the Bonnies erased a 5 point SU lead.
The Orange's offensive struggles allowed the Bonnies to get back into the game behind the play of Jourdan Morris and A.J. Hawkins. Morris entered the game having scored only a SINGLE point for the entire season, but somehow managed to pour in 11 first half points, most of which came from beyond the arc. His last three pointer gave the Bonnies a 34-32 lead, but Josh Wright hit a three pointer moments before halftime to give the Orange the slimmest of margins going into the break.
The beginning of the second half was a different story entirely, as the team made a concerted effort to get the ball inside to Watkins, who responded with 9 points in the first 5 minutes of the half. Watkins had his best offensive game of the year and finished just shy of a double-double (18 pts, 9 reb, 5 bs).
In a surprise move, Boeheim started Devendorf in the second half, possibly in an effort to jumpstart his confidence and get him focused for Big East play. The move paid off well as Devendorf finally started to exert himself on the offensive end. Instead of starting his offense from the outside-in, as he has done in recent games, Devo focused on getting to the basket. He heated up midway through the second half with back to back scoring drives, then found his touch from long range with a pair of triples.
Getting Devendorf back on track is of paramount importance for SU to compete in Big East play. It is very important for this team to have a secondary scoring option besides Demetris Nichols, who once again showed the ability to set up for mid-range shots with a stellar ball fake and 2-step dribble. He hit several beautiful fadeaways and has really improved his movement without the ball. Still, these shots won't come quite as easy against in-conference defenders, so developing alternative offensive weapons is a must.
The two major issues that I saw in this game were point guard play and defensive intensity. In terms of point guard play, this team just cannot afford to have Josh Wright foul out with 3 minutes remaining in the game. As one of the team's better free throw shooters, he needs to be around during late game situations. In addition, he still seems to struggle generating offense for his teammates in a halfcourt setting.
Wright has been very good throwing alley-oop passes to Watkins and Roberts, but his halfcourt play often degenerates to dribbling the ball up the court and handing it off at his first chance. He will need to develop a more dominant playmaking role for this team to succeed in the Big East.
From a defensive standpoint, the Orange came out with pretty good man to man intensity for the first six minutes, but seemed to lose it after that. After building a 13-7 lead, SU gave up an 8-0 run largely due to lackluster perimeter pressure that gave the Bonnies open looks. Syracuse's defense didn't get much better from then on, a big reason why the game was so close at the half.
After playing mostly man to man defense in the first half, Boeheim switched to the vaunted 2-3 zone to open the second stanza and it was outstanding for several minutes. In SU's first 9 possessions playing the zone, the Bonnies scored only three points. This allowed the Orange to extend their lead from one point into double digits.
However, as the game wore on, the zone became less and less effective, as the Bonnies scored 28 points on their final 18 possessions against the zone. Tyler Relph, who scored only 5 points in the first half, started knocking down three pointers with regularity, and the zone also began giving up a large share of offensive rebounds, which extended many possessions.
From a statistical standpoint, there was very little difference in the effectiveness of both the man-to-man (allowed 27 points in 26 possessions) and the zone (allowed 31 points in 27 possessions). However, the real lesson here was that both defenses eventually faltered when SU stayed in them too long. Whether this was due to the Orange losing focus or the Bonnies gaining familiarity is hard to tell with certainty… but I suspect that focus is definitely a key issue. In any event, the ‘Cuse will have to improve on both intensity and concentration when Big East play starts against Pitt on Thursday.
Boeheim will have a lot of things to work on between now and then, but with Devendorf taking a step in the right direction and Watkins continuing to show improved offense, there is still a lot potential for SU to have a strong season. Now that the non-conference slate is over, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. I, for one, can't wait.