From the onset, it looked as if Syracuse would struggle to stay in the game. The Huskies pulled ahead 8-3 early as the SU players came out flat and started the game 1-9 from the field. Connecticut wasn't shooting much better, but Big East All-Rookie team member Jerome Dyson hit two very long three pointers to get the Huskies on track. The Huskies were marginally effective against the zone during the first third of the half, but started to commit unforced errors just before halftime.
A big problem early on was that the Orange were settling for quick, contested shots. Demetris Nichols forced up a few off balanced attempts that didn't come close to falling, and these allowed UConn to transition from defense to offense in a hearbeat. Connecticut scored 15 first-half points in the open court, highlighted by an emphatic alley-oop by Marcus Johnson.
To make matters worse, Roberts and Watkins both picked up two fouls less than 7 minutes into the game. Boeheim, looking for a spark, inserted Paul Harris and the moved paid off. Do-It-All Paul helped to raise the intensity by scoring 6 points on two drives and a mid-range pull-up. He also chipped in 5 boards and assisted on a Nichols three and a Devendorf fastbreak layup.
Still, the Huskies pulled ahead 29-23 on back-to-back fastbreak buckets by Johnson and Curtis Kelly. Everything changed about mid-way through the first half, when moutainous freshman center Hasheem Thabeet picked up a second foul. Calhoun elected to sit his pivotal defensive player for the remainder of the half, and the Connecticut halfcourt defense immediately suffered.
With Thabeet on the bench, Eric Devendorf was able to get into the lane without the threat of having his shot blocked, and everything began to click for the SU offense. Devendorf went on to score 15 first half points, and his dribble penetration also opened things up on the perimeter for Nichols.
Connecticut could not contain Eric Devendorf's dribble penetration.
Nichols first score of the game came at the 8:37 mark, when he worked across two screens and popped out to the wing, caught a pass, and drilled a three all in one fluid motion. Once he broke the ice, he would go on to score 25 more points over the next 28 minutes. Nichols hit two more treys before the break and Eric Devendorf scored 7 points on interior drives, allowing the Orange to close the gap to 38-36 going into the break.
Despite the close score, SU had not played a particularly good first half. For the most part the offense looked sloppy and the transition defense was atrocious. That all changed after the break. The Orange opened up the second stanza with a defensive steal that Devendorf punctuated with a twirling 360-degree layup.
Syracuse's overall intensity and hustle went up a notch after halftime. SU's improved defense sparked a 16-5 run that was highlighted by 4 points by Terrence Roberts and a pair of triples by Rautins and Nichols. The Syracuse zone caused UConn all kinds of problems as the Huskies' players had difficulties passing and catching against any kind of defensive pressure.Once the Orange opened up a lead, they never looked back. Nichols went into ‘en feugo' mode and scored 19 second-half points, including 12 from beyond the arc. His personal 8-point flurry helped extend SU's lead to 61-46 midway through the half. He finished the game with 28 points and hit 7 of 11 from beyond the arc. His three-point shooting was all the more impressive when one considers that he missed his first 2 attempts. Nichols also added 5 rebounds and was sharp on the defensive end as usual.
Nichols wasn't afraid of a little contact this afternoon.
Syracuse had an opportunity to blow the game wide open when Jeff Adrien and Jim Calhoun were both whistled for technical fouls, but SU converted only 2 of 4 free throws and did not score on either of their extra possessions. Syracuse's largest lead was 18 at 72-54.
The Huskies threw a scare into the Orange late in the game when they went on a 9-0 run in a little over 55 seconds. Calhoun switched into a fullcourt press and the ‘Cuse players were completely unprepared and committed three consecutive turnovers. Harris started the onslaught of miscues with a halfcourt pass to no one, then Nichols was stripped at midcourt and a Watkins pass was intercepted after he apparently committed an uncalled backcourt violation.
Syracuse eventually snapped out of its funk as Nichols threw a full court pass over the press to Andy Rautins, who was fouled and hit one free throw to stem the tide. Nichols and Josh Wright finished by hitting one free throw each and the Orange sailed to victory.
One of the keys to the game was the play of Terrence Roberts and Darryl ‘Mookie' Watkins. The pair combined for 17 points, 18 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots. Roberts, in particular, played his best game in over a month and showcased a beautiful turnaround jumper against Jeff Adrien.
Watkins, despite shooting only 2 of 10 from the field, made one of the craziest shots of the year. Thabeet grabbed his arm as he was going up and the ball squirted loose in the air, but Watkins had the presence of mind to bat it into the basket. It was simply an amazing shot. Thabeet would eventually foul out of the game with 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
Jim Calhoun looks on as Hasheem Thabeet takes a seat after fouling out.
After several years of futility against UConn in the Big East tournament, Syracuse has now eliminated the Huskies three years in a row. It was also the first time since 1997 that the Orange defeated UConn twice in one season.
A despondent UConn bench looks on...
SU owns an impressive 8 game BET winning streak that will be put to the test against a Notre Dame team that demolished the Orange 103-91 in the Carrier Dome.