Perhaps the single biggest factor in the game was the play of Paul Harris. While Harris has had an up-and-down freshman campaign, his two games against UConn have been a thing of beauty. On Saturday afternoon he posted 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 assists, while limiting himself to a single turnover. This raised his 2-game totals against UConn to 29 points and 21 rebounds.
Despite the strong point and rebound totals, Harris's main contribution was in the "intangibles" department. He brought a hard-nosed, aggressive approach to the game that seemed to rub off on his teammates as the afternoon wore on. Darryl Watkins, who sometimes falls victim to passive play, became a monster on the glass and a demon blocking the rim. Nichols took on the look of a true go-to scorer late in the game, and Andy Rautins turned in an excellent game on both ends of the court. Much of this was catalyzed by the relentless hustle and intensity of Mr. Harris.
As has been the case all season, Harris looked like a different player when the Orange played man to man defense. UConn got out to an early 17-9 lead behind some hot perimeter shooting from Jerome Dyson. The freshman guard nailed 4 three point field goals in the game's first 8 minutes, bearing little resemblence to the player who entered the game a meager 27-92 from beyond the arc. But the SU zone made him look like Ben Gordon reincarnated, as Josh Wright and Eric Devendorf repeatedly failed to rotate out to cover him.
Boeheim eventually switched out of the zone and matched Harris on Dyson. The change was dramatic, as Dyson managed only 2 points (on a pair of free throws) when Harris was on him. While Harris dogged Dyson much of the afternoon, Boeheim also threw a few different looks at him, using Rautins and Nichols to give Harris an occasional rest. Dyson finished the afternoon with 6 triples, but only one of them came against the SU man-to-man defense.
Once Syracuse went man-to-man, they reversed the 17-9 deficit, outscoring the Huskies 26-13 over an 11 minute section of the first half. Andy Rautins got things started with a steal and lay-up, then Harris found him on a shovel pass to set up a three pointer. Swish. Harris then went to work driving in the paint and repeatedly drew contact to get to the line, where he connected on 5 of 6 attempts. Eventually the Orange pulled even at 24-all, then Nichols took over with a three pointer and lay-up. Eric Devendorf finished out the half with 4 points, including a crisp set-back jumper from the free throw line.
It appeared that SU would go into the break with a 6 point lead, but Stanley Robinson hit a three pointer at the halftime buzzer against the SU zone. Despite giving up the late three, the move to the zone was rather astute as Boeheim used it to protect his team against mounting foul trouble.
The second half proved to be more of the same. Syracuse forced UConn into difficult shots and multiple turnovers. The Orange controlled the glass and the Huskies struggled to find consistent scoring out of any of their players. Freshman center Hasheem Thabeet turned in a solid game with 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots, but he never became a focal point on the offense. He was the only Husky outside of Dyson who finished in double figures. Even Jeff Adrien, the bruising sophomore power forward, was limited to 6 points (7 below his season average).
Dyson eventually finished with 27 points, but most of his second half damage came after the Orange had taken a 13 point lead. With SU leading 58-45, the Huskies mounted a 10-1 run that culminated with a Dyson three pointer against the zone. Doug Wiggins also scored 4 points in this stretch.
At this point, Demetris Nichols took center stage and demanded the ball the way go-to scorers are supposed to demand the ball. He posted up Dyson, hit a turnaround jumper, drew a foul, and finished the three point play with a swish from the free throw line. He then drilled another mid-range jumper on the next possession to extend SU's lead back to a comfortable 9 points with just over 4 minutes left. The late jumpers were a true testiment to his perserverance on the afternoon - although he struggled through an off shooting night (7-20 fg), he was able to make the big shots when the Orange needed them the most.
From this point forward, Boeheim's team went back into the zone and the Huskies committed a series of turnovers that prevented a comeback. Calhoun tried to extend the game by sending the Orange to the line, but it was to no avail as SU finished the game 26-31 from the stripe and went on to win by a comfortable 70-63 margin.
The Orange now have a week off to rest up and prepare for their next road trip to Providence. With 4 wins in their last 5 games, Syracuse seems to be peaking at the right time. Even so, they will need to continue to improve as the final three regular season games are all tough ones.