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First Half Takeaways: Syracuse vs. Baylor in the NCAA Tournament

Syracuse trails a high-temperature, back-and-forth first-round battle with Baylor, 38-37, after the first half in Salt Lake City. Three takeaways from the opening 20:

Syracuse endured Baylor’s early barrage

The Bears canned 3’s on each of their first five possessions. You read that right. Five possessions, five treys. It was an onslaught, aided and abetted by the 2-3 zone — it forces deep jumpers, and it’s vulnerable to offensive rebounding.

Scott Drew’s team raced out to a 15-4 lead, but you’re not an SU fan if you didn’t expect the ‘Cuse to come storming back. The Orange whittled away at the deficit and used a 9-0 run (capped by a Tyus Battle four-point play) to take their first lead with less than seven minutes until halftime.

It helped that Syracuse also couldn’t miss. Baylor went 10-for-18 from deep; the ‘Cuse went 9-for-17. Both of those rates are above 50 percent. I would have taken the under in this game. I am also an idiot.

“These teams have struggled to shoot the ball all season,” CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said at halftime. “And a fire has broken out.”

The tight rotation is back

Jim Boeheim’s reputation for employing a short bench is sometimes a myth, but the pine seems to shrink by the game this season. The first half suggests that the best way to refer to the Orange is a 6.5-man rotation — based on the matchup, Jalen Carey and/or Paschal Chukwu might be glued to the bench (and we can probably chalk Carey’s three minutes up to Frank Howard’s absence).

Tyus Battle picked up his second charging foul midway through the first half and immediately hit the bench. He stayed there for a whopping two minutes. Barring more foul trouble, he will not take another break tonight. Neither will Elijah Hughes. Nor will Oshae Brissett.

The air doesn’t feel thinner here, which is somewhat surprising. Thank goodness it doesn’t. These dudes might need some extra oxygen, anyway.

Makai Mason is legit

One thing young basketball players seem to love to say nowadays, especially on social media, is “#LeagueMe.” Makai Mason is a 6-foot-1 (maybe) combo guard who started his college career at Yale and is now a senior at Baylor. He doesn’t exactly scream lottery pick. But don’t be surprised if that dude plays in the NBA.

When the Bears set up shop on the offensive end, Mason’s leadership, poise, and savvy were impossible to miss. He played quarterback as Baylor attacked the 2-3 zone, which is far from an easy task, but every time his team needed someone to generate a good shot or drill a bad one, Mason delivered.

At one point early in the first half, after the Bears whipped the rock around the perimeter like a hot potato and the Orange tipped it out of bounds, Mason yelled to his teammates: “Great ball movement, baby! Great ball movement!”

And Mason is more than just a vocal leader. He put the Bears on his broad-for-a-guard shoulders, leading the way with 16 points (twice as many as any of his teammates) on 6-for-8 shooting, including 4-for-6 from downtown.

It might scare Baylor fans that their team is so reliant on one dude in this matchup — especially considering he’s already exceeded his average of 14.6 points per game, suggesting he may not stay this aggressive and hot — but Mason has risen to the occasion so far. #LeagueHim.

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