This game was about more than just basketball; it was a true showing of community pride and spirit. The crowd treated the SU players to an awe-inspiring five minute standing ovation prior to tip-off. It was a beautiful recognition of the hard work that Syracuse put in during its late season turn-around that most believed would result in an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
Make no mistake, the crowd played an integral part in lifting the Orange through tough stretches of the game, then spurred them to victory during a pivotal 22-1 second half run. It seemed that every step of the way, the crowd simply wouldn't let the SU players give up on themselves the way the NCAA Selection Committee gave up on them last Sunday evening. This was a night to be proud of the SU faithful, who rallied around their team with fierce passion in a turnout that exceeded the combined total attendance of the last 3 NIT games played in the Carrier Dome.
Front and center in the victorious effort was Eric Devendorf, the fiery sophomore guard who has been at times both spectacular and maddeningly frustrating to watch this year. Last night he put the Orange on his back, scoring 34 points to keep SU in the game when all other forms of offense had dried up. Devendorf hit a parade of long jumpers in the first half to offset the hot shooting of South Alabama's Demetric Bennett, who banked in not one, but two 3-point attempts. At the break, Eric's 18 points were the single biggest reason why SU was down by only a single point.
Devendorf connects on a deep three-point shot.
However, just as Devendorf's shooting kept SU in the game in the first half, his poor defensive effort allowed South Alabama to get several good looks from the perimeter. In the second half, all of that changed. As good as Devendorf was in the first 20-minute stanza, he was much better in the second. His defensive intensity picked up markedly and he began to get out on the South Alabama shooters, and deflect interior passes to their imposing big man Ernest Little. He also started to play more like a point guard, finding Terrence Roberts for an alley-oop dunk in transition, hitting Darryl Watkins for an uncontested lay-up inside, and feeding Demetris Nichols when he got the hot hand mid-way through the second half. All things considered, it was his best half of basketball in an Orange uniform.
The key factor in SU's 22-1 second half run was the complete and total defensive turnaround. Prior to that section of the game, South Alabama had hit on 50% of their three point attempts (10-20), but the renewed emphasis on defense limited the Jaguars to 0-7 from beyond the arc during the run. With SU trailing 50-59 at the 11:30 mark, Devendorf found Watkins for a layup. Following a missed lay-up by Ernest Little, Demetris Nichols knifed through the defense on the other end and finished an old-fashioned three point play with a sweet finger-roll move.
Down 55-59, Syracuse methodically mounted its comeback with the Orange fans behind them every step of the way. Devendorf was fouled on a drive and hit both free throws, then the Orange forced a turnover at the top of the key and Devendorf found Roberts for the aforementioned alley-oop to tie the game. Cue crowd volume +10 decibels.
At this point, the South Alabama players began to tighten up in the face of the hostile environment, and the three-point shots that were going down so easily before started to rim out. Carlos Smith missed a three point attempt that would have given South Alabama back the lead. Cue crowd volume +10 more decibels. With the benefit of hindsight, this was probably Syracuse's most important defensive stop of the evening.
It was only fitting that Demetris Nichols (15 pts, 7 reb, 2 bs) would hit the shot to give SU the lead for good, as Eric Devendorf found the silky-smooth shooting senior on the wing for a three-pointer. SWISH. 62-59. Cue crowd volume + 15 more decibels.
Once the Orange got the lead, they continued the run, outscoring the Jaguars 10-1 over next 5 minutes. All told, South Alabama scored a single point over an 8 minute stretch, as they repeatedly missed shots and turned the ball over in uncharacteristic fashion. Watkins (8 pts, 11 reb, 3 bs), Nichols, Roberts (6 pts, 8 reb, 2 bs), and Devendorf all contributed offensively during the 10-1 run.
Devendorf finishes a wild drive in the paint.
South Alabama would eventually mount an effort to get back in the game as they connected on three trifectas in the game's last minute and a half, but Devendorf, Nichols, and Rautins combined to go 6-6 from the free throw line down the stretch and the Jaguars never got closer than 4 points. Syracuse finished the game 17-20 from the line, which was a most welcomed sight after poor free throw shooting cost them in recent losses to Notre Dame and Villanova.
The first half of the game was an emotional roller coaster as well. Syracuse got off to a slow, but somewhat efficient start, pulling ahead 10-7 after four and half minutes. It looked as though the Orange were poised for a rather boring workman-like victory, but the team completely collapsed upon the insertion of freshman Paul Harris. The Jaguars blitzed SU for a 15-0 run over the next 4 minutes as Demetric Bennett (23 pts, 7 reb, 3 ast), Leandro Buboltz (5 pts, 1 reb), and Stephen Cowherd (3 pts, 1 reb) all connected on shots from beyond the 3-point line.
Meanwhile, Harris, who had been such an instrumental part of Syracuse's late-season turnaround, seemed to be pressing far too much for coach Boeheim's liking. He was a chaotic ball of unfocused energy, missing point blank shots, committing charges, and throwing the ball out of bounds. It was a major step backwards for the talented freshman who will be a focal point of next year's team. Harris (3 pts, 4 reb, 1 ast) would eventually redeemed himself with a coast-to-coast drive and three-point play late in the first half, but he was used only sparingly after the break.
Jim Boeheim reacts to a South Alabama first-half run.
With Syracuse behind 22-10, the crowd began to implore the Orange to get back on its feet. This was South Alabama's first attempt at a knock-out punch, but SU was only staggered by it. Rather than give Gary Walters the satisfaction of saying the NCAA Selection Committee was right, the 'Cuse players got up, brushed themselves off, and gave their best swing back.
The offensive inspiration came from an unlikely source, as Matt Gorman hit a baby hook shot from the baseline to end the scoring drought. Syracuse then pulled within 2 points at 20-22 when Devendorf and Nichols both hit triples, but Nichols would eventually head to the bench with 3 first half fouls and only 3 points. Darryl Watkins gave the 'Cuse a momentary lead with a dunk, but his counterpart on the opposition (Ernest Little) scored two more baskets as the lead see-sawed back and forth.
Ernest Little and Mookie Watkins battle under the basket.
A jumper by Rautins and Harris's coast-to-coast three point play finally gave the Orange some breathing room at 38-34, but sloppy play at the end of the half once again reared its ugly head. Ernest Little (17 pts, 18 rebs, 6 bs) threw down an uncontested dunk, then Demetric Bennett banked in a 32-foot footer at the buzzer after Paul Harris had missed a jumper with 10 full seconds left on the shot clock. Poor clock management and ball-handling at the end of the half seems to be a trademark of this SU team.
[On a side note: I know I always bring up the dreaded bank-shot three pointer as "the kiss of death", as it seems like SU always loses games when an opponent makes one. Fortunately for the Orange last night, Eric Devendorf used a little bank-shot mojo of his own to offset Demetric Bennett. Eric's banker came at the 13:30 mark of the second half.]
Overall, it certainly wasn't the prettiest or most impressive win in Jim Boeheim's career, but it was certainly one of the most meaningful - to him, his players, and Orange fans nationwide. A small degree of vindication perhaps, but more work remains to be done. SU will now take on San Diego State on Monday evening at the Carrier Dome for a chance to compete in the NIT's version of the Elite 8. It may not be the Big Dance, but it showed that the Syracuse players, coaches, and fans have Big Hearts nonetheless.
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