Catastrophe Averted!

The Syracuse Orange ran their Big East record to 4-1 with a 77-76 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats on Wednesday evening. The Bearcats, who are winless in Big East play, came back from 18 points down to take a one-point lead late in the game before a pair of Eric Devendorf free throws gave SU the victory. The Orange were led by Demetris Nichols, who finished with 22 points.

I know the old cliché goes "A win is a win", but this one was hard to stomach. Syracuse played a stellar first half but followed that up with a complete meltdown after the break. The SU offense, which looked unstoppable for most of the first half, struggled to maintain control of the ball. To compound their offensive ineptitude, the ‘Cuse's lack of focus on the defensive end was twofold: failure to contest the shooters in the 2-3 zone, and failure to contain Cincinnati's transition.

Cincinnati's second half offense basically came down to two things: 1) Marcus Sikes lighting it up from downtown, and 2) his fellow Bearcats scoring on fastbreaks after SU turnovers. A 20-8 run midway through the second half almost completely erased Syracuse's comfortable 60-47 lead. Sikes, Deonta Vaughn, and Jamual Warren all hit three pointers during this run.

Guard play, particularly ballhandling, continues to be a big problem for the Orange, as Josh Wright (8 pts, 5 to) and Eric Devendorf (17 pts, 8 ast, 3 to) turned in poor second halves. Wright, who recorded 7 assists, had several key turnovers late in the game, none more costly than a charging foul after Cincy had pulled ahead 75-73. Three times late in the game he drove into the lane, was closed off by the defense, and simply lofted a pass into no-man's land. Each was picked off.

Josh Wright gets an earful from coach Jim Boeheim.

Eric Devendorf followed suit by committing two turnovers by dribbling into double-teams, but at least he was able to make some positive plays down the stretch to help the Orange win. Devendorf's two biggest plays were a made three pointer at the 4:20 mark, and a pair of made free throws that provided the final margin of victory. Devo's three pointer came after the Bearcats had cut the lead to 68-67.

Eric Devendorf shoots the game-winning free throw.

The SU victory was at least partially assisted by the refs, who called the Bearcats for two questionable late game fouls. The first came when Marvin Gentry was called for pushing Demetris Nichols in the back at the 35 second mark, and the second came when Eric Devendorf nearly lost the ball at midcourt during a scramble with Warren. The latter foul was called with only 12 seconds left remaining. To SU's credit, both players knocked down their free throws to give the team a 77-76 lead. Syracuse was once again outstanding from the free throw line, hitting 17 of 21 shots for 81.8%.

Cincinnati had a chance to win the game in their last possession, but Deonta Vaughn (13 pts, 8 reb, 5 ast) did not manage the clock well and was forced into a long, slightly off-balanced three pointer just before the buzzer. The shot fell way short but was plucked out of the air by Cedric McGowan (10 pts, 7 reb). Fortunately, McGowan was jumping towards the basket and his forward momentum prevented him from getting his putback attempt over the lip of the rim. There would be no Lorenzo Charles moment for the visiting team this evening.

A big problem in SU's sputtering second half offense was a lack of movement off the ball. In fairness to Wright and Devendorf, it is hard to make effective passes to stationary teammates. The only Orange(man) willing to work to get open was Demetris Nichols, but he was largely ignored by his teammates. For instance, Nichols was standing wide open on the wing when Wright committed his late-game offensive foul.

You have to love Devendorf's ability to get into the paint and finish in creative manners, but when he takes over point guard duties, the offense often becomes the "Stand around and watch Eric" show. The Orange players must make a conscious effort to remain active off the ball, particularly in late game situations.

Earlier, the Orange had stormed out with a 12-4 run to open the game. The SU offense looked like a juggernaut, headed by the relentless interior play of Terrence Roberts (17 pts, 10 reb) and the long range shooting of Demetris Nichols. Roberts started the game with a nifty spin move in the post that resulted in an 8-foot bankshot, then followed that up with three quick monster dunks. He used his superior speed and size to score in transition and follow up on missed shots.

Roberts dominated the first half with 16 points before the break.

The Bearcats, on the other hand, did not have a counter to the SU frontcourt. Most of their first half offense was predicated on long jumpers and uncertain interior passes against the zone. Deonta Vaughn had trouble getting comfortable on the court and forced several shots early in the shot clock. Cincinnati's quick misses allowed Syracuse to increase the game tempo and play at a pace that is usually reserved for the cupcake portion of the schedule.

Midway through the first half, Matt Gorman, Eric Devendorf, and Andy Rautins all connected from three point range, further expanding the SU lead to 38-20. Syracuse connected on 10-23 triples on the evening (43.5%) In a surprise move, Boeheim switched out of the effective zone into man-to-man defense, and Marcus Sikes hit a three pointer from the corner in Demetris Nichols' face to give the Bearcats an infusion of much-needed energy.

What followed was a classic SU lull. The offense bogged down behind poor passing and one-on-one play, and the defense became slow and sluggish. In a foreshadowing of the second half collapse, Cincy put together a 14-5 run to cut SU's lead to 9 points. Sikes (24 pts, 2 reb, 2 ast) hit a three in transition, then another triple against the zone. Syracuse had lost all focus on the offensive end, but Demetris Nichols (22 pts, 5 reb) scored 5 points in a 35 second burst to give SU a 48-34 lead going into the break.

Syracuse would need every one of those first half points to stave off the Bearcats after halftime. Once again, the opponents adjusted to the SU zone and became more efficient in scoring against it as the game wore on. Cincinnati, the worst three point shooting team in the Big East, hit 13 of 32 shots from beyond the arc, most of them uncontested. Sikes finished 8-12 from three point land.

When Cincinnati wasn't making threes, they were fiercely battling for offensive rebounds. The Bearcats pulled in 19 of their own missed shots. Combine that with their +13 margin in the turnover column (SU 21, UC 8), and the Bearcats were able to take a staggering 28 MORE SHOTS than the Orange. The offensive rebounding and emphasis on the three point shot allowed UC to score 30 points against the zone in 24 second half possessions. To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of allowing 61.5% shooting on two-point shots if the opposition got one shot per possession.

Proponents of the zone will point to the fact that Cincinnati shot only 36.4% from the floor during the game. However, as the above numbers prove, there is more to defense than field goal percentage allowed. The final act of defense is rebounding, and if you allow the opposition multiple shots per possession, they will eventually figure out a way to put the ball in the basket.

Fortunately, Jim Boeheim recognized just soon enough that the zone was no longer working and switched to man-to-man late in the game. The Bearcats struggled to score against the man to man defense, but capitalized when Boeheim switched to zone for an out of bounds play, as Cedric McGowan split Watkins and Nichols and snaked in for a layup to bring the score to SU 73, UC 72. Syracuse then used man to man to get a stop on the next possession, but switched back to zone in the following possession and Sikes hit a straight-on 24 footer to give the Bearcats their first lead at 75-73.

The end game was somewhat anti-climactic with SU winning the free throw shooting contest by going 4-4 while Cincinnati went 1-3, including Jamual Warren's (5 pts, 4 reb, 3 ast) crucial miss of the front end of a 1-and-1.

The takeaway message in tonight's game is that the Orange cannot afford to toy with any Big East opponent, no matter how low they are in the rankings. The margin for error for this team is relatively slim, so they must maintain focus more readily, particularly on the defensive end. The other takeaway message is that, no matter how sloppy the team was in the last 10 minutes, they still managed to do just enough to win, and that's what really matters in the Big East. Maybe

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