In a game fitting the two longtime rivals, Syracuse rallied from a ten-point first half deficit, took their own ten-point lead in the second half, then barely held on before escaping with a 79-76 win over #18 Connecticut on Thanksgiving Day to advance to the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The Orange (5-0) ripped off ten straight points just before the midpoint of the second half to take the lead for good.
For the second straight night, SU enjoyed a strong shooting performance from long range, connecting on 45 percent (9-of-20) of their three point shots. Four different players hit multiple threes as five different Syracuse players scored in double figures. While at a considerable size disadvantage inside, the Orange also finished with a 41-33 rebounding edge on the Huskies (4-1).
The two squads played it close in the opening minutes, but after four minutes, UConn opened up a ten-point lead on the strength of an 8-1 run. Down 19-9, the Orange struck back with seven straight points.
Malachi Richardson opened the run by stepping into a three-pointer, then Trevor Cooney scooped up a loose ball and pushed it upcourt. The guard found Tyler Roberson for a slam dunk. Michael Gbinije finished the burst by cruising down the left side for an uncontested lay-up to make it 19-16 in favor of the Huskies.
Connecticut would nudge their lead out to seven points, but the Orange defense held them scoreless for three minutes and the offense took advantage. Cooney got SU back on the scoreboard with a pair from the stripe, then flipped in a leaner in the lane. Tyler Lydon added two more from the free throw line and Syracuse trailed, 25-24, with just over seven minutes left in the opening half.
UConn got a pair from the line, but Lydon knotted the game with a foul shot and a 19-foot jumper off the right elbow.
Two-and-a-half minutes later, Gbinije gave the Orange their first lead of the day when he came up with a steal, then got the ball back from Roberson for a wide open three that vaulted SU to a 32-31 lead. Gbinije then added two more on a circus shot in the lane on the next possession. The Huskies got a three to tie the score and send the game to intermission at 34 a side.
Each team held the lead in the opening moments of the second half, but Connecticut used a streak of seven straight points to take a 44-39 lead with just under five minutes off the clock. Cooney, however, used a fast break lay-up to slice into that lead, then Lydon trailed in transition to get open and bury a triple to tie the score once more.
After a UConn trey nudged them back in front, Richardson answered in kind, getting a dribble handoff from Roberson that freed him in the left corner for a three. Gbinije followed with a three of his own from the right corner off a Cooney transition pass for the lead. Richardson added a free throw, then a three from the left wing off a Gbinije assist to make it ten straight Syracuse points and a 54-47 lead with 11:30 on the clock.
The Orange held Connecticut at bay for a few minutes and eventually pushed their lead to 65-55 on the strength of a pair of transition scores. Gbinije was the force behind both baskets, first jumping into the passing lane for a steal and going coast-to-coast for a lay-up, then pushing the ball again on the next possession to set up an alley-oop connection with Roberson for a ten-point bulge.
The Huskies, however, took over the role of three-point bombing squad, hitting four three-pointers in just over two minutes. The flurry of deep shots shaved the Syracuse lead to 73-71 and led the Orange to call a time out.
Coming out of that brief break, Lydon posted on the left block and stuck a jump hook to make the margin four. Two trips later, Lydon was fouled cutting to the rim and made the first shot to make it 76-71 with 2:24 to play.
Two Husky possessions later, Lydon made a fantastic defensive play, leaping with his arms straight up to block a shot, then tapped the ball out to Cooney, who snatched it up and was fouled. Cooney made both shots at the line to give Syracuse a seven-point cushion with 72 seconds to go.
UConn made a pair of free throws to get back within five, but Roberson made one of his own at the stripe to make it 79-73 with 44 seconds on the scoreboard. The Huskies would not roll over, though, connecting on a three to halve the Orange lead.
The Orange inbounded and deftly handled UConn’s pressure to advance into the frontcourt. Cooney then put on a little bit of a dribbling exhibition, slicing through the defense and maintaining his dribble. The fifth-year senior, though, appeared to lose track of the fact that Syracuse still had to shoot or commit a shot clock violation. Richardson yelled at Cooney, who realized the situation and heaved the ball at the rim.
The shot caromed off the rim, but Roberson chased it down in the left corner. The forward snapped a pass over to Cooney allowing the remaining couple seconds to run out and give SU the 79-76 win.
Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije paced the Orange with 17 points apiece and the latter led SU with seven assists and six steals. Tyler Lydon had a big game off the bench, posting his first double-double at SU by amassing 16 points and 12 rebounds. Tyler Roberson just missed a double-double of his own with 14 points and nine boards, while Malachi Richardson chipped in with 13 points, including a trio of makes from deep.
Four Connecticut players were in double figures, paced by Daniel Hamilton, who had a game-high 18 points and grabbed a dozen boards. Sterling Gibbs and Rodney Purvis each added a dozen points while Amida Brimah chipped in with ten.
Syracuse will make it three games in three days on Friday when they meet up with #25 Texas A&M for the Battle 4 Atlantis title. The Aggies (6-0) advanced to the championship game by beating Texas 84-73 and edging #10 Gonzaga, 62-61. Five different A&M players are averaging over nine points a game, including guard Danuel House, who averages 16.3 points per outing.
The last time the two teams met, the Aggies eliminated the Orange from the 2006 NCAA Tournament, which was also Gerry McNamara’s final game in uniform for SU.
The title game will get underway at approximately 3:00pm Eastern. ESPN will televise the contest, which will also be streamed online at ESPN3.com.