Escape Artists!

The Syracuse Orange recorded their first conference win of the season with a 70-58 victory over the Marquette Golden Eagles at the Bradley Center on Sunday evening. The key to the victory was some strong zone defense by the Orange, which held Marquette to 38% shooting from the field. Eric Devendorf led the way with 20 points.

43 turnovers. 71 missed shots from the field. 23 missed free throws. These are the numbers that Syracuse and Marquette combined to put up in one of the ugliest basketball games of the year. The Orange were able to pull out the victory, outlasting the Golden Eagles in a battle of offensive ineptitude.

In the end, it came down to a huge Demetris Nichols 3-pointer, a Josh Wright fastbreak lay-up, and a handful of free throws. The two teams were evenly matched for the first 36 minutes of the game. David Cubillan's trifecta with 4:05 remaining in the game knotted the score at 55, but the Orange responded with a 10-1 run over the next 3 minutes to escape with a much-needed victory.

Eric Devendorf got things started when he canned one of two free throws, but Nichols was a real hero when he drilled a slick step-back three pointer over All-Big East caliber defender Jerrel McNeal. Nichols had been ice cold for most of the second half, but hit the big shot when it mattered most, giving the Orange a 4-point lead at 59-55.

From that point, Syracuse went to work on the defensive end, forcing a Marquette turnover and extending its lead on a Josh Wright fastbreak lay-in assisted by Eric Devendorf. The Orange then nailed 8 consecutive free throws to close out the game.

Prior to the late game heroics, Syracuse repeatedly turned the ball over to allow Marquette fastbreak scoring opportunities. Jerrel McNeal singlehandedly kept Marquette in the game with a stellar defensive effort that included five steals, two of which came in a 40 second span in the first half. McNeal capped off both steals with buckets, the second of which gave the Golden Eagles a 17-14 lead and fired up the Bradley Center crowd.

At this point it seemed likely that the Orange would crumble in the face of the hostile crowd, but head coach Jim Boeheim called a timeout and regrouped his team. It took about 2 minutes for Syracuse to get into a rhythm, when a Demetris Nichols (17 pts, 7 reb) three-pointer from the wing jump-started a 10-0 run that gave SU a 24-17 lead. Eric Devendorf (20 pts, 4 reb, 1 ast) provided the rest of the offense, making two jumpers and a driving lay-in for 7 quick points.

Just when it looked like the Orange offense was about to go into cruise control, it sputtered to a grinding halt. SU had an opportunity to open up a relatively large lead, but missed all 6 of its first half free throws. Jerrel McNeal and David Cubillan hit a pair of three pointers to cut the SU lead to 28-27, but it appeared that the Orange would be able to hold the ball for the final shot of the half.

Instead, Devendorf tried a 40-foot alley-oop pass to Darryl Watkins. Mookie was unable to convert the lob and Marquette recovered. Paul Harris blocked a jumper by Wesley Matthews, but Matthews retrieved the ball and passed it underneath to Dominic James, who slid behind Demetris Nichols and made a lay-up at the buzzer to give Marquette the lead 29-28.

With memories of the Pitt game fresh in my mind, I feared that the Orange would come out of the lockerroom completely deflated. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. Terrence Roberts found Darryl Watkins (14 pts, 10 reb, 5 bs) for a quick deuce and Devendorf made an acrobatic lay-in on the next possession, proving that SU was indeed alive and kicking. Watkins played an outstanding game on both ends of the court and is turning into SU's most consistent player.

Darryl Watkins turned in another impressive performance.

The ‘Cuse surrendered the lead a few minutes later, but never allowed the Gold Eagles to get ahead by more than 3 points. Wesley Matthews turned in a few impressive plays in this stretch, but a pair of free throws from Demetris Nichols tied the game at the 14:15 mark. From that point forward the Orange either led or were tied.

Despite escaping with the win, Marquette was able to expose a major Syracuse weakness: ballhandling. Eric Devendorf turned the ball over 7 times with a series of weak passes and ill-fated cross-overs. Demetris Nichols added 5 miscues, and Josh Wright chipped in 4 more.

Josh Wright hustles for the loose ball.

Wright should take the official scorer out to dinner as a thank you, because many of the turnovers that were charged to teammates were the result of his poor passes. His final stat line looked pretty good (9 pts, 7 ast, and 7 reb), but that doesn't illustrate the fact that almost every trip up the court was an adventure. Josh had his pocket picked twice by Jerrel McNeal and had a lot of trouble even initiating the halfcourt sets, as the Marquette defense forced him further and further away from the basket.

Things got so bad at one point that Boeheim moved Wright off the ball and had Devendorf take over point guard duties. That fared slightly better, except that when Devo takes over the point, the team might as well be playing 1 on 5. This works moderately well against Marquette, which does not have an imposing interior defense, but teams like Georgetown, Pitt, and Connecticut will be able to more easily defend Devendorf's forays into the paint.

Another weakness is the team's lack of depth. Andy Rautins played 7 minutes, all in the first half. Paul Harris played 13 minutes, most of which came in the first half. He had two passes slip right through his fingers and out of bounds, then committed the cardinal sin of fouling a three point shooter. This last transgression landed him a seat next to Mr. Boeheim, and he never returned after that. He finished the game with 2 points and 4 rebounds.

With the win, the Orange are now even in Big East play at 1-1 and sport a 12-4 overall record. The team now travels to Rutgers for a game on Wednesday night. Tonight's win against Marquette was very important, given SU's history of poor play at Rutgers (3-5 at the RAC). If SU can escape the upcoming game in similar fashion, they'll be in good shape for mid-January.

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