After Syracuse forward Kris Joseph went down, center Fab Melo stepped up.
Melo played his best game of the season, with six points, four rebounds and four blocks. His performance helped No. 4 Syracuse overcome an injury to Joseph as Syracuse (18-0, 5-0 Big East) cruised to a 67-52 win over Cincinnati (16-2, 3-2).
“I’ve been struggling lately,” Melo said. “But today I felt confident. I was playing defense and making plays. I felt really confident today.”
Melo’s performance was timely with Joseph getting hurt.
With 6:33 left in the first half, Joseph tried driving down the baseline and was met in the paint by three Bearcat defenders. Joseph got tangled up with Bearcat forward Justin Jackson and went crashing to the floor, banging the back of his head squarely against the floor.
Joseph, SU’s leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, laid on the floor for several minutes before walking off the court on his own. He did not return for the rest of the game.
“He got banged pretty good when he hit the floor,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Hopefully he won’t be out long. We have to wait and see the next couple of days.”
Rick Jackson scored 15 points and added 11 rebounds to lead Syracuse. Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine had 11 each.
Dion Dixon scored 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting 3-pointers to pace the Bearcats.
Syracuse raced out to a 18-3 lead with 8:48 in the first half. But after Joseph went down with his injury, Cincinnati’s offense started getting hot from downtown.
The Bearcats hit 9-of-19 from 3-point land in the first half, including two from Dixon in the last two minutes, as Syracuse led just 35-31, heading into halftime.
“We relaxed on defense, and Cincinnati has some people that can shoot,” Boeheim said. “We gave them open looks, and teams can make those. Hopefully it was a good lesson for us.”
It was a different story in the second half, as Syracuse extended its zone to stop Dixon. After Cincinnati’s torrid start, it shot just 2-for-9 in the second half. For the game, the Bearcats shot just 30.5 percent from the field.
“They weren’t really scoring inside,” Triche said. “Once they got inside, they were just trying to pass it out. In the second half, we got out on the shooters and made it hard on them.”
Meanwhile, SU’s offense was humming all game as the team shot 56.3 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance.
Part of the reason for that was because of Melo.
The starting center came to Syracuse as a high school All-American and was hyped as Syracuse’s next great center.
But it hasn’t been that way for most of the season, as he’s averaged just 11 minutes, 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds despite starting all 18 games.
Despite disappointing so far, Melo provided a glimpse into his potential Saturday.
The center slammed in a pretty pass from Jackson to give Syracuse a 41-31 lead with 17:35 left. A few minutes later, Melo grabbed two offensive rebounds in one possession and laid it back in to cap 16-0 run to start the second half.
“I have been working really hard lately,” Melo said. “I’ve been going out before and after practice to work. I’ve been working really hard and today everything felt different.”
Melo capped off his scoring surge by showing a little range, banking in an elbow jumper to give Syracuse a 53-35 lead. The Bearcats would get no closer than 11 the rest of the way.
“A lot of guys stepped up,” Jackson said. “Guys just have to stay ready and be ready to play. That’s what the guys did today.”
Wesley Cheng is the Editor in Chief for The Juice Online.