After Jim Boeheim reached his 900th career victory, Syracuse’s 72-68 win over the visiting Detroit Titans, the head coach who relentlessly downplayed his achievement admitted he was relieved to be finally past the milestone.
He meant it in broad terms, but it could also apply to the way the Orange very nearly blew a 20 point lead over the final 6 minutes of the game.
“This game was more pressure then I’ve felt in a long time. I certainly wasn’t thinking about losing until a little bit there at the end,” he said.
The Orange was nearly flawless in the first frame and took a 19-point lead into halftime. But Syracuse seemed to grow as bored as the crowd in the second half. The team played the clock, slowing the game down, but failing to execute in the half court and playing lazy defense at the other end.
The Titans, especially Juwan Howard Jr., were happy to seize the opening the Orange gave them, and for the first time all season, the outcome of a game was in doubt.
Veterans Brandon Triche and CJ Fair both made costly mental mistakes, fouling Howard in the backcourt and giving the Titans free points. Michael Carter-Williams, the team’s dazzling floor general, wasted possessions with some atrocious shot selection as well as a bad turnover.
He made up for it by hitting 5-of-6 free throws down the stretch, closing the door—barely—as the Titans were about to kick it open.
“They hesitated for about 32 minutes and then they started to go and we weren’t prepared,” Boeheim said. “At that point, we thought we had control of the game and it is a good lesson to learn, because you never have control of the game.”
The Orange will have to learn that lesson quickly. Conference play is just around the corner, and the Big East currently boasts 5 of the nation’s top 25 teams.
But for a relatively young team that hasn’t been tested at all this season, the scare provides Boeheim with a teachable moment—a lot of teachable moments, in fact. And as a bonus, it didn’t come with an L attached.
“We haven’t looked at a lot of tape because there really hasn’t been anything to look at,” Boeheim said. ”These are things that usually you don’t learn from games that you win, but usually players almost need to lose a game to really think about things such as ‘this is what we have to do’ and I think this game feels more like a loss. It’s good to get one that feels like it but isn’t and I think we’ll be able to look at some plays.”
The players uniformly seem happier for Boeheim’s milestone than he is for himself. But they, too, are ready to move forward and learn from this game.
“It happened, so I think there’s a little less pressure for us now,” Carter-Williams said. “We’re just gonna go out in the next game and try and get Coach his 901st win.”