Orange Pull Away from Friars 71-67

The Syracuse Orange improved their winning streak to 4 games with a 71-67 victory over Providence at the Dunkin Donuts Center on Saturday afternoon. Andy Rautins led the way with a career high 19 points and Demetris Nichols had a huge second half to spark the Orange. The win gives head coach Jim Boeheim 29 seasons with 20+ wins, second only to the legendary Dean Smith.

This victory truly reflected a team effort. With the Orange playing shorthanded due to Roberts' injured knee and Josh Wright's decreased playing time, five separate Orange(men) logged more than 32 minutes on the afternoon. All five players made significant and important contributions. Rautins repeatedly made clutch three-point shots to keep the Friars at bay, Nichols hit the biggest shot of the game when it was tied at 65, Watkins scored in double figures and added 13 rebounds, Devendorf handed out 6 assists and scored 14 points, and Paul Harris did a little bit of everything, including taking over the point guard duties late in the game to guide the team to victory.

The Orange played a very solid second half and quickly erased a 4-point halftime deficit. Demetris Nichols, who was silent for most of the first half, hit a trio of three pointers midway through the second stanza to help SU open up a 3 to 5 point lead. The Orange maintained this slim lead until late in the game, when Herbert Hill and Sharaud Curry scored 6 points in a minute and a half to eventually tie the game at 60 with 5:31 left to play.

The late Providence charge was led by the inspired play of senior Herbert Hill, who came within 2 blocked shots of posting a triple double. Hill was an absolute demon on the offensive glass, as he used an astute sense of positioning to pull in 9 offensive rebounds. All told, he posted 29 points, 15 boards, and 8 blocked shots. His ability to finish was truly impressive, as he missed only 3 of his 16 shot attempts on the afternoon.

Still, Syracuse would bend, but not break. With the game tied at 60, Paul Harris set up Andy Rautins with a shovel pass at the top of the key and the sophomore guard knew exactly what to do. Without hesitation, Rautins squared towards the basket and launced a 22 footer. Swish. The duo would hook up again 2 minutes later, when Harris threw a beautiful backdoor bounce pass to Rautins and Andy adjusted in midair to swish the teardrop floater.

Rautins' heroics would eventually be overshadowed by Demetris Nichols and Paul Harris. Providence fought back to tie the game at 65 on a Brian McKenzie three-pointer with 1:50 left (it was his only basket of the game - how many times have we heard that story as SU fans?). After Devendorf missed a hurried jumper, the Friars had a chance to take the lead, but McKenzie couldn't connect on his next triple attempt and Harris blocked what at first looked like an open lay-up from Geoff McDermott.

Paul Harris blocks Geoff McDermott from behind.

On the ensuing inbounds play, Providence had a mad scramble on the offensive glass but eventually Paul Harris fought his way through a mass of black and white uniforms and pulled out a man-sized rebound. Unlike earlier in the half when he had forced a bad fastbreak shot after a tough defensive board, this time he relaxed and calmly set up the halfcourt offense. When Nichols came off a curl and screen, Harris delivered the ball precisely on time and Nichols cashed the tough fallaway three pointer, despite having only about a fraction of an inch of breathing room.

As the waning moments of the game proved, divine providence seemed to abandon the Friars and favor the Orange. Weyinmi Efejuku drove the lane and was seemly clobbered by Darryl Watkins, but no foul was called. Harris grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Herbert Hill. He made both free throws to provide the final margin of victory at 71-67.

Harris isn't afraid of a little contact...

One of the biggest stories of the game was SU's improved perimeter defense. Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins patrolled the top of the key with more aggressiveness and awareness than at any point in the season. Providence made only 4 of 22 three point attempts, and only 2 of them came against the SU zone. Rautins managed 4 steals to go with his career-high point total and he also chipped in 4 assists and 3 rebounds.

Andy Rautins Gets Defensive.

Syracuse started off the game very strong, pulling ahead 17-8 on a Demetris Nichols fastbreak dunk. Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf combined to hit 3 early trifectas against the Providence zone, but an onslaught of early turnovers derailed SU's efforts to break the game open. A three pointer by Sharaud Curry cut the SU lead to 17-11 and jumpstarted the Friars offense. After trading baskets for the next 7 minutes, the Friars ripped off a 20-7 run to close out the half. Hill and Curry were the main weapons, combining for 11 of the 20 points.

The last 6 points of the 20-7 run came in a 1:20 flurry of activity as the Orange underwent a complete collapse. SU turnovers led to a pair of transition baskets for Curry and Weyinmi Efejuku, and Herbert Hill's putback slam of a missed three pointer gave Providence a 38-34 lead going into the half.

It was a very tough way to end the the half, as the Orange had held the lead for almost 19 minutes before squandering it due to questionable shot selection and poor ballhandling. Hill's putback dunk was a result of Eric Devendorf's misunderstanding of the game situation. Rather than work for the last shot of the half, Devo forced a drive into the paint and Hill blocked the shot. The Friars recovered and eventually got an open look from the three point arc, and although the shot missed, Hill was there to slam it home. The 4-point swing seemed to give the Friars the momentum going into the lockerroom, but the Orange did not seemed phased when the second half begain.

With 4 straight wins in the books, the Orange seem to be clicking at the right time. They are not going to win any awards for style points, but this team seems to have finally figured out how to close out games and play with more poise. There are still a lot of deficiencies to work on, but a new sense of ownership seems to have pervaded the team. Even in a game when Providence outrebounded SU 46-37, the Orange were able to make the big plays and get the big defensive rebounds when it counted. Now, if they could only do that all game long...

Saturday's win greatly bolsters Syracuse's NCAA tourney hopes, as the Orange are now 20-8 overall and 9-5 in league play. If SU can split the final two games of the regular season and move to 21-9/10-6 going into the Big East Tournament, it would be hard to keep them out of the NCAAs. Monday's game against Georgetown is particularly important, as a win in that game would give SU a second high profile victory to point to. Syracuse will once again need to fight and claw to stay competitive in this game, but I'm feeling much better about their chances that I would have two weeks ago.

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