Victory in New Jersey!

The Syracuse Orange moved to 2-1 in Big East play with a 68-58 win over Rutgers at the RAC on Wednesday evening. Eric Devendorf led all scorers with 19 points, and Darryl Watkins nearly turned in another double-double with 9 pts, 10 boards, and 2 blocks. Reserve Courtney Nelson led the Scarlet Knights with 14 points, about four times his season average.

Given SU's history of struggles at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), last night's double-digit win was a welcomed sign for Syracuse fans. The Orange were victorious in their last trip to the RAC in 2005, 86-84, but it took a furious comeback from 20 points down to achieve that win. Prior to that, Syracuse had lost 4 of their last 5 games at Rutgers, including a 2 point defeat at the hands of a Herve Lamazana bank-shot three pointer in 2002-03. The fact that the Orange could lose at the RAC during its national championship season is a good indication of how this building has become SU's personal house of horrors.

This game, however, bore little resemblance to any previous SU/Rutgers game at the RAC. Syracuse did not fall behind early in the game or require a late comeback to make the game close. Rutgers did not get insanely hot from behind the three-point arc. There was no Jerrod Coleman-esque 27 point explosion. No Rutgers center with a season FT% of under 40% hit10 of 11 freebies (a la Kareem Wright). There was no Rashod Kent-style interior domination.

Instead, Rutgers - the worst shooting team in the Big East looked like, well, the worse shooting team in the Big East. The SU defense, mostly a heavy dose of 2-3 zone, held the Scarlet Knights to 18 of 61 from the field, just under 30%. The Scarlet Knights were even worse from three-point range, where they made only 5 of 24 attempts.

Syracuse was able to pull ahead early in the game and rely on the zone defense to set the tempo. Andy Rautins came out firing, hitting for 9 early points on a triple, 2 mid range shots, and a layup. The SU offense was spread out a bit more after Rautins' early barrage, with Eric Devendorf hitting a pair of threes and Paul Harris and Josh Wright converting on two lay-ups each.

Paul Harris muscles up a shot over the Rutgers defense

Late in the first half, Syracuse built a comfortable 5 to 6 point lead, but once again the Orange had tremendous difficulty closing out the half. For the third game in a row, SU had an opportunity to hold for the last shot before halftime, but instead turned the ball over and allowed the opposition to score. Boeheim even called a timeout to set up the last play, but Demetris Nichols was stripped on a drive from the wing and the Scarlet Knights eventually scored on a Marquis Webb (9 pts, 5 reb, 1 ast) offensive rebound to cut the SU lead to 28-25.

This singular play highlighted SU's two main deficiencies on the evening, namely ballhandling and defensive rebounding. The Orange was once again sloppy with the ball, recording 15 more turnovers. Unlike the Marquette game, where a majority of the turnovers were localized in three players, Wednesday's turnover parade was a true team effort. Every SU player had at least 1 turnover, and the seniors led the way with 3 apiece.

Perhaps the most frustrating turnovers came from Demetris Nichols (12 pts, 7 reb), who was stripped by off-the-ball defenders on two separate occasions. His ability to create "off the dribble" offense has improved greatly this season, but now he needs to read the opposing defenses better. Teams are beginning to run a secondary defender at him, and with his high dribble he is susceptible to coughing up the ball if he doesn't pick this up. Nichols had a quiet night overall, hitting 4 of 8 shots from the field and 3 of 5 from the line.

The bulk of the turnovers seemed to come once SU had built a sizeable 17-point lead with about 5 minutes left in the game. Rutgers capitalized on SU's ballhandling miscues by posting a 15-4 run that cut the lead down to 6 points with two minutes left, but an Eric Devendorf (19 pts, 2 rebs, 1 ast) layup staunched the bleeding. SU then finished out by hitting their last 4 free throws to seal the victory.

Syracuse was once again excellent from the free throw line (how weird does that sound?), hitting 18 of 21 attempts. SU has been exceptional in late game situations - even last weekend the Orange finished 9 of 9 at the stripe after starting dreadfully (12 for 26) against Marquette. Tonight they were 12 for 12 in the last 8:45 of the game.

Most of SU's second half offense came from Eric Devendorf, who was very aggressive going to the rack. He scored 13 second half points and always seemed to come up with a bucket whenever the team needed one. Terrence Roberts, who was held to zero points in the first half, also picked up the slack with 7 points after intermission. Roberts (7 pts, 6 reb) opened up the second half with an old-fashioned three-point play, then later in the game hit a foul line jumper and converted an alley-oop to give SU its largest lead at 60-43.

The only thing that kept the game from becoming a total laugher was the offensive rebounding of Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights corralled 18 of their own missed shots, many of the boards coming due to horrific misses from the perimeter. Long shots often lead to long rebounds, and Rutgers was able to grab many of these. Darryl Watkins (9 pts, 10 reb, 2 bs) once again led the Orange in rebounding and Demetris Nichols chipped in 7 boards himself. Paul Harris (6 pts, 5 reb) was strong on the boards during his 18 minutes.

Syracuse gives up one of 18 offensive rebounds.

SU has just won back-to-back road games and positioned itself to make some noise in the parity-filled Big East. Of the 16 conference teams, only Providence and Pitt remain unbeaten. The Orange now host Villanova and Cincinnati in upcoming games. Neither team has played particularly well in leagues games this year, so if the ballhandling and rebounding can improve, the Orange will be in good shape to improve to 4-1 and move towards the top of the Big East standings.

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