Upset in New York!

The St. John's Red Storm pulled off a surprising 64-60 victory over Syracuse in Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. The upset loss was fueled by terrible transition defense and 15 costly turnovers. The Orange squandered a golden opportunity to move into a tie with Pitt for first place in the Big East, as the Panthers were beaten by Marquette later in the day.

Few Syracuse games have ever had such a puzzling ending. The Orange, down 4 points with just over 50 seconds left, chose not to foul when the Red Storm was on offense. The Johnnies worked the shot clock down to 2 seconds before Eugene Lawrence (10 pts, 7 ast) was forced into a difficult, off-balanced 20 footer. The shot clanged off the side of the rim, but SJU freshman Qa'rraan Calhoun (10 pts, 7 reb) tipped out the rebound. The Johnnies then played "keep away" for another ten seconds before a meaningless late SU steal.

Earlier, the Orange had mounted a strong comeback from 8 points down. Eric Devendorf and Demetris Nichols (12 pts, 4 reb) provided most of the second half offense, with Devo taking over the roll of primary scorer. Devendorf poured in a career-high 23 points, 18 of which came after intermission. His three point shot at the 5:05 mark gave SU its first lead of the second half at 52-51. He would then answer with another deep trifecta 50 seconds later to extend SU's lead to 55-53.

Syracuse's comeback was sparked mainly on the defensive side of the court, where the Orange played primarily man to man and forced St. John's into numerous poor shot attempts. However, Boeheim once again abandoned the man defense as soon as his charges took the lead on Devendorf's three pointer at the 5:05 mark. Calhoun scored 2 FT on the first possession after the change, but the more damaging score came after SU had taken the 55-53 lead. Matt Gorman failed to rotate into the corner and Anthony Mason Jr, a 25% three point shooter, nailed his 4th triple of the game.

SU would once again take the lead (58-57) at the 1:45 mark when Demetris Nichols took a handoff from Matt Gorman and canned a remarkable off-balanced three pointer from the wing. Boeheim then switched back out of the man to man into the zone, and Avery Patterson, who had been held to 2 points on the afternoon, hit a three pointer from the top of the key and was fouled by Eric Devendorf. Patterson knocked down the free throw to complete the 4-point play, giving St. John's a 3-point lead.

In answer, SU ran its best offensive set of the night and Devendorf found Nichols in the corner for a wide open three pointer, but Nichols missed the shot off the back of the rim. Paul Harris was thrown to the ground on the ensuing rebound, but the Johnnies regained possession.

This time down the SU team couldn't seem to figure out which defense it was in. Eric Devendorf was at the top of the key signaling for the zone, while Paul Harris was on the far side looking to match up against a man. The end result was that Avery Patterson slid to an open spot on the wing and Gorman was unable to get out in time to prevent him from knocking down another triple.

Patterson's 7 points in 35 seconds proved to be the final nails in the ‘Cuse coffin. Devendorf answered with a quick lay-up, but the Red Storm was able to run out the last 54 seconds without the Orange retaining possession with enough time to mount a final comeback.

In the end, the disparity between the two defenses was staggering. Syracuse played 40 possessions of m2m and allowed 24 points, while their 18 possessions of zone allowed 25 points. St. Johns made 6 of their 9 three point shots against the zone.

That said, the bigger issue for Syracuse was their anemic offense. Eric Devendorf was stellar during the comeback, but at times became a one-man team. He made three crucial errors down the stretch: first he threw a one-handed pass to Nichols out of bounds, and then he committed a costly charging foul, and finally he fouled Patterson for the 4-point play. At this point his offense remains geared towards making things happen mainly for himself.

On the plus side, at least he is able to efficiently score when he gets into the lane or launches from downtown. Josh Wright, on the other hand, has been unable to create for others OR himself. Somehow he was charged with only 2 turnovers on the afternoon (seemed more like 7 or 8), but his repeated missed lay-ups (especially on forced 1-on-2 or 1-on-3 fastbreaks) were almost as damaging as his poor passing. He finished the game 1-6 from the field. In total, the starting SU backcourt finished with 3 points on an abysmal 1 of 11 shooting. Rautins was a virtual non-factor in 24 minutes, finishing with 1 point, 1 assist, and 1 steal.

Josh Wright continues to struggle when he gets into the lane.

Wright's biggest problem at this point is his failure to see the court well enough to deliver the ball to his teammates when they are "in rhythm". On several occasions, Nichols would pop out to the wing after a baseline screen, but Wright would look him off for a second before eventually making the pass. This allowed the defense time to recover, and more importantly further frustrated the senior forward. This eventually led to Nichols forcing some bad shots because Wright was unable to get him the ball on the first cut for a clean look.

In addition to the guard's struggles, the Orange turned in a weak showing at the free throw line. They entered the game with a FT% of 74.8% in Big East play, but finished at 4 of 14. Terrence Roberts was the main culprit, missing 8 of his 9 free throws in backboard-breaking fashion. Ouch. Otherwise, Roberts played a rather solid game with 11 pts, 10 reb, 2 bs, and 3 st.

The other half of the SU interior duo took a big step backwards on Sunday. Mookie finished with only 4 pts and 3 rebs, although he did block 4 shots. However, he was caught sleeping on the interior a few times.

Qa'rraan Calhoun throws down a dunk as Darryl Watkins looks on.

Another problem for SU was that the starters opened the game in a complete fog. St. Johns rattled off 13 quick points, beating a lethargic SU zone from the perimeter and taking advantage of some truly uninspired transition defense. Anthony Mason Jr scored 8 points during this stretch, helping the Red Storm to the early 13-2 lead. Three of his points came on a bankshot three pointer from the wing. Mason would finish the game with 16 pts and 10 reb.

[As an aside: is there any greater kiss of death than a bankshot three pointer? It's like the hand of the basketball gods taking a horrific miss and turning it into free points. To me, it seems that there is no greater sign that it's not your team's day than when the opposition banks in a 20 foot shot.]

Syracuse didn't help itself out on the offensive side either, as Josh Wright struggled to get the ball to Demetris Nichols in scoring positions. Darryl Watkins also had difficultly catching the ball. If not for Terrence Roberts, the Orange wouldn't have been able to get back into the game. Roberts recorded 7 of SU's first 9 points, and would have been even more proficient if he hadn't gone 1-6 from the line.

The key move that allowed Syracuse to cut into the first half deficit was a switch to man to man defense. Demetris Nichols and Paul Harris shared duties on Anthony Mason JR, who scored only 2 points during the last 14 minutes of the half. Harris's insertion into the lineup provided an immediate burst of energy and Orange responded with a 7-0 run. Harris finished the game with 12 rebounds, despite playing only 21 minutes. However, he continues to struggle on the offensive end.

Paul Harris brought great energy and intensity off the bench.

Syracuse slowly clawed back into the game and eventually tied it at 26 when Paul Harris got a steal and was fouled on a layup attempt. Harris (4 pts, 12 reb, 2 st, 2 bs) made both free throws, then SU pulled ahead 28-26 when Andy Rautins got a steal at midcourt and found Terrence Roberts for an uncontested dunk.

Unfortunately, Syracuse once again showed very poor poise and execution to close out the half. The Orange had a chance for the final shot, but Harris threw a pass behind Devendorf, who was heading towards the paint and wasn't even looking. The pass bounced out of bounds and the Red Storm scored on the ensuing possession to take a 29-28 lead. It could have been even worse, as Larry Wright picked off Darryl Watkins' lazy inbounds, but Mookie sent Wright's shot attempt out of bounds as the first half buzzer sounded.

Syracuse now stands at 15-5 overall and 4-2 in Big East play. Their next game is on the road against Louisville, followed by home games against top-25 Notre Dame and an improving DePaul squad. To get through this difficult stretch, the Orange must improve on their poor ball-handling.

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