"Live by the sword, die by the sword". The Syracuse Orange proved the truth of this age-old saying on Saturday afternoon in a 78-75 loss to the Villanova Wildcats in Philadelphia, PA. Syracuse, which had been so deadly from three-point range during their recent 5 game winning streak, failed to gain any rhythm on the offensive end and finished the game 9-35 from beyond the arc.
The fact that the Orange were forced into shooting 35 three pointers is a true testament of the perimeter defense that the Wildcats applied all afternoon. Make no mistake, almost all of these shots were contested due to Syracuse's inability to spread the floor and employ the crisp passing that has characterized their recent victories. In total, the Orange missed 25 of their first 30 three point attempts. Die by the sword.
The most damaging segment of the game came midway through the second half, when the Wildcats went on a 34-14 run to turn a 10 point deficit into a 10 point lead. The Villanova trio of Dante Cunningham, Curtis Sumpter, and Scottie Reynolds repeatedly torched the Orange during this stretch. Sumpter made several acrobatic moves in the lane, Reynolds knifed through defenders with ease, and Cunningham drew fouls at a breakneck pace. Cunningham finished the game with 21 points and 8 rebounds and made all 11 of his free throw attempts.
Eric Devendorf provided the majority of the offense during SU's second half collapse. With the 'Nova defenders focused on stopping Andy Rautins and Demetris Nichols from the perimeter, Devendorf found open driving lanes throughout the afternoon. He scored a career high 33 points on an assortment of dazzling drives in the paint and even knocked down 4 of 10 three pointers. He also added 4 rebounds and 3 assists, but his 5 turnovers proved costly. Unfortunately, he partially offset his solid plays with a few bad miscues late in the game. Overall, he was never able to settle into a groove to take over the tempo and control the game as he has done in recent contests.
Devendorf's drives kept the Orange in the game.
The dagger shot from the Wildcats came when they broke the SU press and Curtis Sumpter hit a trey from the wing to give the 'Cats a 69-59 lead with about two and a half minutes left. It looked like the game was over, but the SU shooters suddenly got hot from beyond the arc, as Devendorf, Rautins, and Nichols all hit triples in the final minute and a half. Live by the sword.
Jay Wright's team could have folded at this point, but they were able to keep SU at bay with some timely accuracy from the charity stripe. Villanova entered the game as the best free throw shooting team in the Big East, and proved it by hitting a stunning 29-32 from the line. Syracuse, in contrast, made only 16 of 25 from the line.
Amazingly, the Orange still had an opportunity to tie or win the game, despite their abysmal shooting performance. Trailing 78-72 with 8 seconds left, Josh Wright drove the lane and was fouled. He made both free throws to cut the deficit to 4 points, but more importantly Demetris Nichols was fouled by Cunningham on the second free throw. The refs ruled it an intentional foul as Cunningham seemingly took a swing at Nichols' head. The favorable call for SU meant that Nichols, a 90% free throw shooter, would get a pair of shots, then the Orange would get the ball back for a final possession.
Unfortunately, Nichols missed the first free throw. After he nailed the second to cut the lead to 3, the Orange executed a perfectly timed inbounds play (great screen by Terrence Roberts) to free Nichols in the corner for an open jumper. Demetris, who had hit so many big shots for the Orange this year, rose up and released with his perfect form... and missed. It could have been the type of finish that is talked about for years, but alas, it was not meant to be. Rautins corralled the miss and threw up an off-balanced three at the buzzer, but it too fell off the iron. Die by the sword.
It was a tough finish to the regular season for Rautins and Nichols. Both players were instrumental weapons during SU's recent 6-1 stretch, but they were unable to get it going on Saturday. They combined to shoot 4 of 26 from the floor and scored only 18 points. Nichols was also ineffective on the glass, where he managed only 3 rebounds. The poor showing on the final weekend of the regular season will likely cost Nichols a shot at the Big East Player of the Year Award. It is certainly unfortunate, given how important he has been for Syracuse this season.
The tone of perimeter futility for Nichols and Rautins was set early, as the two combined to miss 4 three point attempts within the game's first minute and a half. Eric Devendorf eventually drained a triple, but Nova pulled ahead 10-3 before Syracuse showed any cohesion on the offensive end.
With the SU starters struggling, Boeheim turned to his bench for a spark and Josh Wright and Paul Harris provided just the right kind of energy to get SU back in the game. Wright hit a three pointer from the top of the key and also finished an awkward fast break, then Harris made his presence felt on glass with 6 first half rebounds. Harris punctuated the first half with a ridiculous (and I mean RIDICULOUS) one-handed tomahawk over Cunningham just before the buzzer. All told, Wright and Harris combined to chip in 13 points before the break.
Josh Wright gave Syracuse a great first half spark.
Paul Harris picked up his second techincal foul in two games.
The second half was a different story, as the two combined for only 3 points, all of which came from the line. Neither player seemed to get back into the offensive or defensive flow. Wright, in particular, was unable to contain the dribble drives of Scottie Reynolds, who finished with 22 points and 6 assists after scoring only 3 points in the first half.
The Orange got next to nothing from its duo of senior interior players as Roberts and Watkins combined for only 6 points and 16 rebounds. Watkins did have 5 blocked shots, but neither player was able to make much of an impact on the game. The Orange also were unable to attain the offensive balance that has been so important during their recent hot streak. Only two players scored in double figures. The fact that Syracuse was even remotely competitive in this game was actually a good sign.
Syracuse will now head to New York City as the #5 seed in the Big East Tournament. The Orange are 21-9/10-6 and seem to be in decent shape for an NCAA tourney bid, but another win or two certainly wouldn't hurt. Syracuse will play either Connecticut or St. John's, pending the outcome of Sunday afternoon's Providence/St. John's game.