Can we have a moratorium on the debate over whether Syracuse or St. John’s is “New York’s College Team?” At this point there is no debate. The crowd on Thursday afternoon might have been split 50/50 but the Redstorm faithful were tentative. They know they don’t own the Garden but were just renting it from the Orange.
St. John’s had only one loss in MSG prior to last night and that was a lopsided Orange victory in mid-January. Since then, they had beaten Notre Dame, Duke, UConn and Pitt among others. It’s been an impressive year for the Johnnie’s but the Orange put an end to their Big East season with a 79-73 victory. Syracuse has now won 12 of 13 against St. John’s and the debate of who “New York’s College Team” is should be laid to rest for at least a couple more years.
The Redstorm’s defense was causing problems early for the Orange. St. John’s completely took Rick Jackson out of the game by packing in the paint and not even allowing entry passes to him in the post. They were quick to the ball and Syracuse wasn’t able to get any easy buckets. But Syracuse also helped them out with a handful of awful turnovers. The much-maligned Scoop Jardine threw a pass over Brandon Triche’s head, threw one to where he thought CJ Fair would be that landed out of bounds and had a pass picked off all in the span of four minutes. And he wasn’t the only one that made unforced errors. By halftime, the Orange had turned the ball over 12 times resulting in 13 points (many easy layups in transition).
Aside from those easy buckets off turnovers, Syracuse’s defense looked strong. St. John’s looked to penetrate but when they did they were usually met by multiple defenders and the Orange turned back 7 shots in the first half alone. But with multiple defenders collapsing, St. John’s did manage to corral 9 offensive rebounds in the half but despite getting good looks, managed just 6 points off of them.
Of course, the other major factor in this game was St. John’s losing senior forward D.J. Kennedy early in the first half. Kennedy drove to the hoop with 14:25 left in the half, landed awkwardly and crumbled to the court. Kennedy suffered a torn ACL and obviously will miss the NCAA Tournament. With the injury to Arinze Onuaku last season, Syracuse fans know all too well how an injury in the Big East tournament can be devastating come the actual tournament.
Without Kennedy, their third leading scorer and top rebounder, the Redstorm were thin at the forward spot. Senior Sean Evans stepped up in place of Kennedy and scored 11 points and grabbed 12 boards but St. John’s certainly missed one of their leaders on the court.
Syracuse trailed 37-32 at halftime, largely due to the turnovers, but they cleaned up that problem after the break. In the second half, the Orange turned it over just 3 times compared to 11 for St. John’s. In addition to taking care of the ball, they also started hitting their deep shots. They hit their first three 3-pointers after the break to take a 48-43 lead.
Brandon Triche has been streaky for much of the season but the Orange need him to stay aggressive and he did that yesterday afternoon. Triche was just 1-for-5 in the first half but wasn’t deterred and hit on 4 of his 8 shots in the second half where he scored 15 of his team-high 22 points. He also knocked down all 8 of his free throws to bring his current streak to 37 straight from the line.
But I saved the best for last. And by best I mean most surprising. Are you ready for this? The player that really turned the tide in this game was Fab Melo. The freshman has failed to live up to the hype that comes along with being a McDonald’s All-American all season long. He constantly got the quick hook from Boeheim (once after playing for just four seconds) while Baye Keita quickly became the defensive stopper in the paint.
Melo showed signs of breaking out against DePaul. He finished with a career-high 10 points while hitting on all five of his shots. But that was against DePaul in a blowout. This was in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden against a tough St. John’s team. Melo’s confidence was building with each play. He took charges, he blocked shots, he slammed home an alley-oop from Rick Jackson and he ran the court faster than he had all season.
He also scored the bucket that really put this game away. With under 35 seconds left and Syracuse up 2, Triche drove and hit Melo along the baseline. He gave a quick head-fake that got his defender off his feet and then dipped up and under for the reverse layup. He was the rare 7-footer that had strong footwork and grace that we had heard so much about prior to the season.
Boeheim said it was the schedule that has allowed Melo to become more comfortable. This was just the third game in nearly three weeks for the Orange and the extra practice time has paid dividends. Boeheim has been able to get his freshman up to speed and really utilize his bench. There were times this year when he felt comfortable with six players (even that’s probably a stretch), but now that number is up to eight or nine.
The win most likely locks Syracuse in to a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the Orange aren’t worrying about that right now. They must prepare for Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies who they face in the semifinals Friday at 7pm.