While they didn't go on the road and beat a ranked team, what the Orange did was go into ACC territory and beat a team that most probably thought would pick up the victory based on its experience and strong guard play. Instead, the Orange came roaring back from a 36-29 halftime deficit and led by as many as seven points after the break en route to a 70-68 victory.
Donte Greene scored 20 points, including 15 after the half, and pulled down 10 rebounds to lead the way for the Orange, and Paul Harris recorded another double-double with his 10 point, 14 rebound performance. Jonny Flynn put in 18 points and Eric Devendorf added 16 and six assists in the win.
While Greene has typically settled for jumpers all season, he got the Orange on the board early with a pretty baby hook that sparked a 12-5 run to open the game. Syracuse used sharp ball movement during that stretch as they hit all five of their early field goal attempts, including triples from Devendorf and Harris.
After taking a 24-19 lead on a Devendorf layup with 8:32 left in the half, the Cavs scored eight straight over the next four minutes to take a 27-24 lead. During that stretch the Orange went away from their strong ball movement and attacking mentality, instead favoring early jump shots that could not find the mark. The Orange also made some costly turnovers, including a bad pass to no one in particular from Devendorf that led to the basket that gave the lead to the Cavs at 25-24 with 5:09 left before the break.
Devendorf penetrated for a tough bucket to make it 27-26, but the previously cold shooting Cavs got a three from Adrian Joseph to make it 30-26. Flynn answered with a three of his own, but two more Virginia treys from Sean Singletary and Calvin Baker made it 36-29 heading into the half. The Orange did not score in the final 3:24 of the first half, instead reverting to the sloppy ballhandling and forced early jumpers that have plagued them all season.
Virginia got outstanding contributions from its bench in the first half, with half of their points coming from the pine. They also took advantage of nine Syracuse turnovers, turning them into 17 points, and closed the half on a 17-5 scoring run. Throughout the run, the Cavs took advantage of lazy turnovers and bad shot selection as well as often poor rebounding. The Orange started the half dominating the boards, but Virginia took control of the glass late in the half as they often limited the Orange to just one attempt on the offensive end of the court.
The second half began with the Orange making some of the same mistakes that cost them their lead in the first, settling for an early and off balance Devendorf jumper on their first possession, a three point attempt by Greene after just one pass on their second, and a turnover by Flynn on their third. Greene finally put the Orange on the board with a triple after some strong ball movement to make it 36-32 in favor of the Hoos with 18:09 left.
Over the next four minutes the Orange finally started to attack the rim, and the new attacking mentality played tremendous dividends. That stretch proved to be the biggest of the game for the Orange, as they used the outstanding penetration and aggressiveness on the offensive glass for a 12-5 run to regain the lead and extend it to 44-41 with 13:52 to play.
Arinze Onuaku started the run with a follow dunk on an aggressive drive and miss by Greene, and Harris went to the rack and drew a foul, making two free throws to bring it to a 39-36 Virginia lead. After a Virginia bucket Flynn penetrated the lane and found a wide open Harris for a layup to make it 41-38, and Rick Jackson tossed in a short hook to make it a one point game. Flynn gave the Orange their first lead since it was 24-23 when he attacked the rim on the break and drew a foul, sinking both free throws for a 42-41 advantage. Devendorf closed out the run with another fast break layup.
During the stretch the Orange proved that they are at their best when they can grab the rebound and push it up the floor, attacking the rim and working from the inside out. This continued when Harris pulled down an outstanding and incredibly tough rebound and managed to finish and draw a foul, converting the free throw and giving Syracuse a 47-44 lead. Flynn made two free throws and hit a short jumper to make it 51-44, tying the biggest lead of the night for the Orange, and Greene answered a Virginia triple with a bomb of his own to make it 54-46 to give Syracuse its biggest lead of the game with 9:42 to go.
However, instead of continuing to dominate with their attacking mentality, the Orange again started to settle for early jumpers, most notably a wild flailing 18 footer by Devendorf off of the first pass, and the Hoos battled back to take a 57-56 lead on a driving three point play from Singletary, who battled illness all night en route to 10 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.
Virginia extended to a 59-56 lead, but after the Orange cut it to 59-58, Flynn drove the lane and instead of taking the easy layup, attempted what would have been a spectacular jam and missed, leading to another Virginia run out and basket to make it 61-58. While it would have been highlight reel material, the freshman point guard has got to learn to make the easy shot rather than go for the spectacular finish in that sort of situation. Things did not get better on the next possession when Greene threw an errant pass to the Syracuse bench.
But despite the sloppy play and poor shot selection that allowed Virginia to come back and reclaim the lead, the Orange showed some fortitude that they have not displayed since the St. Joe's win. After the defense created a turnover, Devendorf found Greene on the break for an emphatic jam, and the freshman from Baltimore drilled a three on the next Syracuse possession to make it 63-61. Devendorf hit a three on the next trip to make it 66-61 and put the Orange back in control with 4:18 remaining.
The Cavs tried to fight back, with Joseph scoring to make it 66-65 with 1:31 to play, but Greene went inside and hit a short baby hook to make it 68-65. Virginia got another bucket to make it 68-67, but Flynn managed to shake free with five seconds remaining to take the in bounds pass and sank both free throws to ice the game. The Cavs had one last chance with 1.2 seconds left, but after Singletary intentionally missed his second free throw Onuaku grabbed the rebound to secure the 70-68 victory.
Orange fans can take several things away from this game. The most positive aspects are that it was a good win on the road against a quality BCS opponent, it was a come from behind victory by a young team against a senior laden team, and the defense seems to be greatly improved over the dismal Massachusetts performance from a week ago.
Greene proved capable of dominance down the stretch, with 12 of his 20 points coming in the final 9:42 of the game, and while he made a few boneheaded turnovers, Flynn played a strong overall game. Greene, after playing the worst game of his collegiate career thus far in the win over Tulane, truly impressed both on offense and on the glass in a great bounce back effort. One can only hope that Greene will now realize that he is much more effective when he works from the inside out, using his height and length to score on the interior and then stepping out to hit deep jumpers.
It's clear that Jimmy Boeheim has stressed defensive intensity over the past week, as the Orange held the Cavs to just three points over a six minute span as they turned a seven point deficit into a 51-44 lead with just over 10 minutes to play. Boeheim should also be credited for his coaching down the stretch, making sure the ball found its way into the right hands and using the fouls that his team had to give to his advantage, culminating with putting Singletary on the line with the seventh team foul before the senior could put up a three point attempt and basically sealing the win.
There are still some flaws to this team, the most glaring being the lack of a bench at this point in the season as well as the continued poor shot selection and bad turnovers at inopportune times. As far as the bench goes, it's not as much about the lack of talent in the 6th, 7th, and 8th men but about JB's refusal to give them meaningful minutes. Jackson, Scoop Jardine, Josh Wright, and Kristof Ongeneat all got some minutes in the first half but only Jackson played after halftime. The starters played admirably after the break, but JB needs to work on the rotation if for no other reason than to keep his starting five fresh in February and March.
Despite the lapses in judgement by this team with bad early shots and at times out of control play, the bottom line is that this was a very good win that will resonate with the NCAA Tournament selection committee in March. A loss would have left the Orange at 5-3 and facing a tough Rhode Island team at the Dome on Saturday, as well as without a signature out of conference victory. Instead, the win puts the Orange at 6-2 and gives them what they haven't had in years: a signature, gritty road win over a strong BCS opponent, which is something the selection committee will not be able to ignore on that fateful Sunday in mid-March.
This youthful Orange team has certainly had its share of growing pains, but if these young players continue to learn and grow the way they have just from last week to this week, by March this group of Orangemen will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.