On the way to the Carrier Dome Saturday, 28,944 fans endured the freezing temperatures outside, most expecting to see Syracuse grab another Big East win. But instead they got a chance to witness an overtime thriller.
In a game that featured 10 ties, 14 lead changes, countless missed opportunities, and a 7-2 opening run by Rutgers; the Orange were still able to come away with their 22nd victory of the year as they held off the Scarlet Knights for an 84-80 victory.
“When we’ve been in these games that have been right to the wire, we’ve stepped up and made plays to win these games,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. “That’s not always easy to do, it’s very easy to let a game like this get away from you.”
It seemed like Andy Rautin’s presence at the game was going to change the team's struggles from behind the arc all season, as the Orange connected on four of their first five attempts after surviving Rutgers' early run. But as the game wore on, the Orange cooled down and were only able to connect on several more attempts as they finished the game 6-of-19 (31 percent) from deep.
In a close game in which every possession was critical, SU freshman C.J. Fair shined during his 37 minutes on the floor, as he had a career night in the scoring column. Posting 17 points to go along with his 8 rebounds, Fair is turning out to be the Orange’s freshman phenom instead of Fab Melo.
“The more I play the more comfortable I get, and I get more confidence,” Fair said.
Before the season started, Melo was grabbing all the headlines and attention as the McDonald’s All-American was voted Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year. Due to his poor play though, his minutes have diminished as the season has progressed. Just moments after walking onto the floor Saturday night, the freshman played all of four seconds when he was taken out of the game after committing a foul.
“I made a mistake and I shouldn’t have put Fab in that situation, because he hasn’t played,” Boeheim said. “This was just a game where we couldn’t afford to wait for him to get comfortable, and it was my mistake getting him in that situation.”
During the close contest, fouls and free throws became the story of the game as the Orange continually missed on huge opportunities from the charity stripe. Rutgers head coach Mike Rice was very displeased with the foul differential, as three of his starters fouled out, and his team only had 13 free throw attempts compared to the Orange’s 47.
“These are Big East referees and they’re supposedly the best in the country, and I’ll just have to believe that those were calls,” Rice said. “When I look at the film I’m sure I’ll see a lot of missed block-outs and a lot of fouls, but that’s a part of the game and we just have to do a better job.”
While Rick Jackson repeatedly missed crucial free throws down the stretch that could have ended the game in regulation, Brandon Triche stepped up and was perfect from the line (9-of-9) when the Orange needed them most.
“The last few games and even so in practice I’ve been treating every free throw like it’s a game and an opportunity,” Triche said. “Just having that experience from freshmen to sophomore year and just being more comfortable under pressure.”
Triche finished with 17 points, while Jackson notched another double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Kris Joseph was the game’s leading scorer with 21 points, and also added eight rebounds to his stat line. Mike Coburn led the way for the Scarlet Knights with 18 points, while Jonathan Mitchell added 13 points and seven rebounds.
With three more games left on the schedule before postseason play starts, Boeheim’s rotation has been cut short the last few games. The Hall of Fame coach knows that he will have to get more from his bench in order for the Orange to do well in tournament play.
“We’ve got five guys right now that are playing at the level we need to play, and we’re going to have to play at least two more guys starting Monday,” Boeheim said.