Thursday night, #23 Syracuse faced their first true test of the young basketball season and, to put it simply, their offense failed. The Orange (2-1) shot under 36 percent from the field and simply could not keep pace with California in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden, falling by a 73-59 final. That final score probably does not tell the full tale, as the Golden Bears (3-0) took advantage of an SU dry spell late in the first half to post a 12-0 run and take a double-digit lead that would never dip into single figures again.
The Orange offense sputtered most of the night, scoring on consecutive possessions a total of three times in the game’s first 30 minutes and mustering nine assists on 23 baskets. Cal, on the other hand, had 22 assists on their 26 buckets.
SU got off to a promising start when Kaleb Joseph hooked up with Rakeem Christmas for an alley-oop in the game’s opening seconds. California retaliated with the next six points of the contest. Chris McCullough responded by scoring a half dozen straight for Syracuse, including a three-pointer from just inside the NBA line and showing off a nifty spin move that he finished with a finger roll. The drive and finish put SU back on top just five minutes into the game at 8-7.
The Golden Bears came back with a pair of jumpers to retake the lead, but SU matched them with two scores of their own. Tyler Roberson connected on a jump shot, then Michael Gbinije made a steal and went the length of the court for a dunk and a 12-11 Orange lead.
From there, Syracuse went into a shooting slump, missing five straight shots, including three tries from beyond the arc. California tallied baskets on three consecutive possessions during this time to take a 17-12 lead. SU responded with two jumpers, including a Trevor Cooney three-ball, to knot the score at 17 a side with just over five minutes to play in the opening half.
Cal posted five more points, but Gbinije responded with a drive into the lane and flipped the ball in on a short shot while getting fouled. Gbinije tacked on the free throw to get SU within 22-20 with four minutes on the clock.
After the under-four television time out, the Golden Bears hit four three-pointers in less than two minutes, blowing open the game and taking a 34-20 lead. Gbinije scored again for Syracuse, but it was the last tally of the half and Cal held a 34-22 halftime lead.
California kept the heat on SU coming out of the break, outscoring the Orange by a 13-6 margin in the second half’s first five minutes. The burst put the Golden Bears out front by a 47-28 margin.
Syracuse scored seven straight points to try to get back in the game, triggered by Cooney turning a steal into a transition dunk and another Gbinije trey. The last score pulled SU within twelve heading into the under-12 media time out.
The Golden Bears regrouped during the break in the action and scored six straight points to take a 53-35 lead with more than ten minutes still on the clock. That brief run essentially ended the game, as the Orange were only able to claw back within 12 twice. Following the second time SU got within the dozen, Cal responded with seven straight points to lead by 19 points again, this time with under four minutes remaining.
Michael Gbinije and Kaleb Joseph paced the SU offense with 13 points apiece, Gbinije putting in an aggressive effort off the bench and Joseph offsetting a scoreless first half with all his points coming after the break. Chris McCullough was perhaps the best player on the court for the Orange, posting 12 points, five blocked shots, and three steals.
Aside from those three players, Syracuse was nearly punchless, shooting 8-of-35 (22.9 percent) in the game, including B.J. Johnson’s 0-for-8 outing in 13 minutes off the bench. Johnson did, however, lead SU with eight rebounds in his limited time.
California had four starters reach double figures, led by Jordan Mathews, who poured in 22 points on the night, including 20 in the second half. Jabari Bird tacked on 16 points, including hitting four triples in the game, three of which came in the last five minutes of the first half when the Golden Bears locked up the game. David Kravish added a dozen points and Tyrone Wallace dropped in ten.
Syracuse has a very short turnaround, as they will take on Iowa at 5:00pm Eastern on Friday in the consolation game of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Hawkeyes (2-1) were blown out in the second half of their semifinal against #10 Texas and dropped a 71-57 decision to the Longhorns. Aaron White had 23 points for Iowa in the game and averages 17.3 points per outing on the season.
ESPN2 will provide television coverage of the SU-Iowa game.