Prized Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson went down hard to the floor eight minutes into the first half, but the story of the night was reserved for the flight of a sophomore standout and senior staple.
Kris Joseph scored a career-high 23 points and Arinze Onuaku added a season-best 20 as the Orange squashed the Providence Friars 85-68 to improve to a school-best 22-1 record.
“A.O. was the most active he’s been all year,” SU Coach Jim Boeheim said. “He hasn’t been having the kind of year we need from him."
Onuaku asserted himself in the low post early on, scoring 10 of the team’s 18 points to open the game.
“They started off with a matchup zone so we tried to go high-low on them,” Onuaku said. “The goal was just to dominate them inside.”
As SU extended its lead to 18-12, the Carrier Dome faithful received a scare. Johnson crashed to the floor while trying to convert a dunk after Brian McKenzie undercut him midair.
“I got my body twisted,” said Johnson. “I was going to take the fall. I didn’t want to stick my arm out.”
A battered Johnson struggled to his feet and returned to the game following a timeout.
Even with Johnson at less than full strength, SU continued to pull away from the Friars. The Orange jumped out to a 37-26 lead fueled by Johnson’s assertiveness and capped off by an Andy Rautins three-pointer.
Those 37 points at the 3:26 mark of the first half would be SU’s last points of the half.
Providence capitalized as the Orange went cold from the floor. Vincent Council went on an 8-0 run of his own to close out the first half, trimming the Syracuse lead to three.
The Friars knifed through the SU zone and connected on several buckets along the baseline as the half progressed. With defenders out of position to help on penetration, the undersized Friars were active on the glass, outrebounding Syracuse 22-16 in the first half.
SU reversed last week’s storyline and opened the second half in much the same way Georgetown and DePaul had in their first halves against the Orange.
“The last couple of games we got down early because we didn’t play defense,” Onuaku said. “We stepped it up on that end in the second [half].”
Onuaku scored three quick baskets and Triche added a three-pointer to jolt a 9-0 Syracuse run to begin the frame.
“There is no one on their team, no one in the country that can stop A.O.,” Joseph said of his teammate. “When he really decides he wants to score, he will.”
Johnson, who showed no symptoms of a serious injury, took himself out of the game early in the second half.
“I was fine out there running and jumping,” he said. “But I felt there was no need to try to push it or overdo it so I told coach to take me out.”
With Johnson out, another SU forward needed to fill the void.
Rising star Kris Joseph did that and more.
Joseph scored 13 of his 23 points in the second half, contributing to a 22-5 spurt which helped the Orange pull away from the Friars.
“The defensive intensity really picked up in the second half,” he said. “We had to shut it down, and I think we did a really good job of it.”
Boeheim, usually guarded with praise, was impressed by his team’s effort on both ends of the floor.
“This was the most active we’ve been on offense and defense,” he said.
The Orange will travel to Cincinnati Sunday for an afternoon date with the Bearcats, 14-7 (5-4).
And SU plans on playing at full strength.
“I’ll be playing,” Johnson said with a smile.
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