Syracuse didn’t play its best game, and still walked away with a victory over Louisville. SU shot just 1-15 from behind the arc. Scoop Jardine went scoreless on 0-8 shooting. The Orange scored its lowest total of the season with 52 points. And somehow, it was enough to snap a 7-game losing streak against a red hot Cardinals team in a tough environment at the KFC Yum! Center.
There’s a trend developing. Last week against Georgetown, the Orange was outrebounded 48-38, shot just 33% from the field, and the starting backcourt combined for just 10 points. But SU still beat the #11 Hoyas.
There was a point earlier this season when fans and national pundits worried that Syracuse wouldn’t be challenged enough to be ready for March. Within the last seven days the Orange have put that those concerns to rest. SU has now grinded out two wins in ugly games against dangerous top 25 teams.
The NCAA tournament is brutal. These wins in February can provide the Orange with a roadmap to make it through March. This team will face adversity somewhere along the road to New Orleans for sure. But maybe that adversity seems a little less daunting after surrendering the lead and watching Louisville go on a 13-2 run late, before pulling back ahead for the win. This wasn’t the first time Jim Boeheim has seen his team respond to such a challenge this year.
“I thought we showed great perseverance to take the lead, they come and take the lead back. I think Brandon made a play, or maybe two plays that we had to have. It’s always tough, wherever you are, particularly on the road, this is a tough place to play, when you lose a lead like that and go down five it’s difficult at that stage. But we’ve actually been in a few close games this year and we’ve made plays when we had to in those games.”
Even the best squads eventually have an off night. The ability to come away with wins on those evenings can make the difference between a great team and championship team. The fact the Orange has been able to win these games, especially one on the road, bodes very well for them in the tourney. Now substantially battle-tested, the NCAA’s won’t be the first time this team will be forced to execute down the stretch in a close game against terrific competition. Syracuse simply knows how to finish. If SU can beat Georgetown and Louisville on “off nights,” the Orange should be able to make enough plays to survive tough opponents next month.
The biggest cause for the Orange’s success in these games is that, as the adage goes, defense never takes a night off. It’s been debated whether this is Jim Boeheim’s best zone ever, which is incredibly high praise. Fab Melo has developed into one of the nation’s most feared shot blockers, and this team is as good as any at creating offense out of its defense. Monday, on a night when its offense couldn’t buy a basket, that zone held Louisville 20 points under its season average, came up with 12 steals, forced 16 turnovers, and shut out the Cards for the final two minutes to preserve a one point win.
Everything that’s happened so far this season is part of the buildup to a six-game run in the NCAA tournament. The best team doesn’t always win that tournament, largely because it’s nearly impossible to play your best six games in a row against tough competition. After the past week, Orange fans can sleep a little easier knowing that this team doesn’t necessarily have to.
Posted: Steve Neikam