Syracuse starts fast, fades late in loss to Pittsburgh

Three days after finding out they were no longer eligible for postseason play due to a self-imposed postseason ban, Syracuse took to the floor in Pittsburgh with only simple pride on the line. The Orange acquitted themselves very well, but finally fell behind for good with 2:20 left in the second half, eventually falling to the Panthers, 83-77.

SU (15-8, 6-4) led for all but about one minute and fifteen seconds in the first half, never trailing in that time, and was on top for portions of the second half, but could not hold off Pitt (16-8, 5-5), who closed the game with a decisive 10-4 run.

The game encapsulated Syracuse’s primary issues on the season. First, the Orange played strong for much of the game, then wilted late. They also got a strong scoring effort from the big three or Rakeem Christmas, Michael Gbinije, and Trevor Cooney, who totaled 58 points, but little production from the bench, who provided three points. The Panthers, meanwhile, got 33 points from their reserves.

After a turnover to start the game, Michael Gbinije set the tone for the first half for the Orange, chasing down a Pitt player and swatting his lay-up aside. Shortly after, Trevor Cooney opened the day’s scoring with a long three-pointer. Following a Pitt basket, Rakeem Christmas dropped in a jump hook, Gbinije hit a jumper, and Kaleb Joseph drove across the key and banked in a lay-up for a 9-2 SU lead with 3:30 elapsed.

The Panthers called a timeout and responded to the skull session, getting a three-pointer on their next possession. Gbinjie struck back at the hosts, banking in a tough floater, then powering through a foul to score after collecting Cooney’s missed transition lay-up. The forward missed the free throw, but his baskets still nudged the SU lead to eight points.

» Related: Syracuse will not be playing in post-season in 2015

On the heels of a Pittsburgh three-point-play, Gbinije continued to power the Orange offense. First, he set up Christmas for a two-handed slam dunk, then he scooped in a fast break lay-up after Ron Patterson came up with a steal. The second score gave Gbinije eight points in under seven minutes of play as part of a 17-8 start for Syracuse.

Pitt narrowed the margin to four points, but Gbinije kept his foot on the gas, splashing a three-point shot from the right wing. The Panthers would clip four points off the margin, but the Orange ran off seven straight points to push the lead to ten points.

Patterson started the run with a reverse lay-up when Cooney found him making a nice back door cut. B.J. Johnson added a free throw, then Christmas made a jump hook and a fadeaway jumper on consecutive trips for a 27-17 lead with 7:20 left in the opening half.

The hosts replied with an 8-2 run to claw back within four points, but Syracuse would nudge the margin back out to seven points on a wild fling from Cooney that dropped in to start a three-point-play. Pitt matched the three points, but Cooney scored again, this time on a stepback jumper. Following another Panther marker, Gbinije cashed in a strong drive down the lane for a 38-32 Orange lead with just over three minutes left in the half.

Pitt scored the game’s next half dozen points, but Christmas found Tyler Roberson with a nice high-low pass and the sophomore slammed the ball home for the half’s final two points. The dunk gave SU a 40-38 halftime lead.

A free throw from Pitt halved the lead, but Roberson jammed down a Christmas miss for the first Syracuse marker of the second session. Cooney followed a Christmas jump hook with a pair from the line and the Orange held a 46-41 lead. After a Panther score, Gbinije made a foul shot, then zipped a half-court alley-oop pass to Christmas, who dunked emphatically and stretched the SU lead to 49-43.

Pittsburgh knocked down threes on their next two trips, eradicating the margin in under 30 seconds, and would eventually grab the slimmest of leads. Christmas reversed that margin with a lefty hook shot, then Joseph drained two free throws for a 54-51 Orange lead. After a Panther bucket, Joseph converted a cross-court pass from Gbinije into a wide-open trey that gave the Orange a 57-53 lead.

After Roberson made a free throw to make it an 8-2 Syracuse run, Pittsburgh scored on four straight possessions to seize the lead at 61-58 with under nine minutes to play.

The Orange calmly struck back. Gbinije dropped in a three-ball to knot the score, then Christmas made a free throw to take the lead. Christmas then converted a pass from Roberson into another two-handed jam and SU again was in front, this time by a 64-61 score.

Two Pitt scores took the lead back and began the see-saw portion of the game. Gbinije again rose to the occasion for Syracuse, sticking a deep three from the left wing for a 67-65 lead. Pitt tied the game, but Roberson’s free throws again gave the Orange a two-point lead.

The Panthers got a foul shot and a lay-in to go up by one, but Cooney shot-faked his way into a pair at the line and made both for a 71-70 SU lead. A Pitt free throw tied it, but Christmas made one of his own for another one-point Orange lead. A jump shot pushed the Panthers in front, but another Christmas charity shot knotted it at 73 a side with 2:44 on the clock.

Pittsburgh scored on two straight possessions to take a four-point lead. SU pounded the ball inside to Christmas and he was fouled, making both shots to get SU within two points.

On the ensuing possession, Pitt got a three-pointer with the shot clock dwindling, strengthening their control to 80-75 with just over a minute to play. Gbinije raced downcourt and laid the ball in to pull Syracuse within three points.

The Panthers, however, had other plans, running some clock and avoiding Syracuse traps until getting a 3-on-1 shot at the basket. The first try missed, but an easy putback attempt did not, giving them an 82-77 lead with 31.2 seconds showing on the clock.

Gbinije missed a quick three and Pitt rebounded. Following an Orange foul, the Panthers got one free throw to make it a six-point game. Joseph airballed a three, Pitt rebounded, and that was the game.

Rakeem Christmas was simply a monster for the Orange, posting game-highs of 23 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocked shots. Michael Gbinije tied Christmas’ 23-point output, hitting three triples as part of his outburst, and also had four steals. Trevor Cooney added a dozen points for SU while Kaleb Joseph added nine.

Jamel Artis posted a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double to lead Pitt. Sheldon Jeter and Chris Jones gave the Panthers a huge boost off the bench, scoring 18 and 15 points, respectively, on a combined 13-for-18 mark from the field. James Robinson and Michael Young each chipped in 13 points, with the latter snaring 11 rebounds.

The Orange will finish this modest two-game road trip on Wednesday when they face Boston College to close the two teams’ home-and-home series. The Eagles (9-13, 1-9) have dropped five of their last six games, including a 69-61 loss at Syracuse on January 20.

All five SU starters reached double figures in that game, led by Michael Gbinije’s 17 points. BC’s Aaron Brown, who averages points per game on the year, led all scorers in that contest with 21 points. Dimitri Batten added 17 points and Olivier Hanlan, who averages points per game to lead the Eagles, chipped in with 13.

The action will get underway on ESPN2 at 7:00pm Eastern. The game will also be available online at ESPN3.com.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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