The Orange used a 17-4 run midway through the second half to pull away from a pesky Bulls squad that had played them even for most of the first half. Syracuse got very balanced scoring during the outburst; Watkins led the way with 6 points and Devendorf, Nichols, and Rautins all chipped in at least 3 more.
Syracuse's second half run reflected South Florida's offensive ineptitude more than SU's offensive prowess. The Bulls completely forgot about the success they had against the SU zone in the first half of the game and began turning the ball over with shocking regularity. Syracuse players seemed to pounce on every errant pass and loose ball, and Eric Devendorf took advantage with a pair of breakaway lay-ups.
The first half of the game wasn't so pretty. If not for a trio of trifectas from Andy Rautins (one of which he shot from Orlando), the Orange would have faced a big deficit going into the break. South Florida came out with a specific goal in mind - to attack the glass on every missed shot. Kentrell Gransberry and McHugh Mattis seemed to go over or around the SU zone with ease for the game's first 10 minutes. Gransberry posted a monster first half with 13 points and 8 rebounds, and Mattis added some terrific defense, rebounding, and passing.
Midway through the first stanza, Boeheim made an adjustment that eventually helped take the Bulls out of their rhythm. The Orange switched to man to man for the last 10 minutes before the break, and while the new defense was not particularly effective, it limited the offensive rebounding opportunities that the Bulls had thrived on earlier in the game. When SU went back to the zone, South Florida never seemed to regain their aggressiveness on the glass.
This picture pretty much sums up most of the first half.
It helped that Boeheim made some key adjustments to the zone during halftime. The first adjustment was designed to try to keep the ball out of Gransberry's hands. This was accomplished by having the top of the zone extend out a little further than normal and contest/harass the below-average Bulls ball-handlers. Once pressured, Chris Howard and Mattis repeatedly threw passes over their intended targets. The second adjustment was to move Watkins higher in the paint and force Gransberry to catch the ball a bit further from the basket. Once he was faced with having to put the ball on the floor to get into scoring position, he was essentially negated as an offensive weapon.
Of course, it also didn't hurt that Gransberry went to the bench (with an open cut) for several minutes in the middle of the second half. Gransberry's departure also coincided with McHugh picking up a 4th foul. With the Bulls' best offensive and defensive players on the bench, Syracuse reeled off their aforementioned 17-4 run. Nichols, who had been completely stymied by Mattis, shook free of his replacement and nailed a pair of three pointers, and Watkins took advantage of USF's inexperienced back-up center Zaronn Cann. Mookie scored 12 points in the second half and showcased a quick dropstep and up-and-under move.
Nichols would finished with only 8 points, a far cry from his 37 point explosion against St. John's last Sunday. To his credit, however, he did a very good job on the glass, pulling in 8 rebounds, and added a few key defensive plays including a sweet one-handed block of a Gransberry lay-up attempt.
With the Orange milking a late lead, Boeheim once again put the ball in Eric Devendorf's hands and settled Josh Wright on the bench. Wright had done a good job picking up 6 points for a sputtering SU offense early in the game. He hit a pair of baseline jumpers and added a strong drive through traffic, but a poor series early in the second half drew Boeheim's ire and landed him a seat next to the Hall of Fame coach. The series in question started with yet another 1-on-3 drive that end with a missed shot. He then compounded the miscue by retrieving the rebound and immediately hucking up a jumper, rather than pull the ball back out to reset the SU offense. It seemed as if Andy Rautins was at the scorer's table before the shot clanged off the rim.
Devendorf, in contrast, played a much more poised and controlled second half. He finished the game with 13 points and 4 assists, but more importantly he did a great job of limiting the careless turnovers that had characterized some of his previous late-game meltdowns. Devendorf's drive and dish out to Rautins for a baseline three with 5:30 left in the game gave the Orange a 62-48 lead that essentially sealed the victory.
Eric Devendorf did a good job running the offense in the second half.
Syracuse now stands at 18-8 overall with a 7-5 record in Big East play. It seems odd that a single win would be the difference between NCAA lock and bubble, but if the Orange could have that Louisville game back, they would be in great shape to close the season. 19-7/8-4 would look a lot more favorable to the selection committe. Fortunately, with the back-to-back wins SU has put itself in position to control its own destiny. A win over UConn coupled with a 2-1 record over the last three games and Orange fans should be able to relax a bit. Anything less than that will require some damage done at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tourney. Regardless of SU's recent success in the BET, let's hope it doesn't come to that.