NEW YORK — For the last six minutes of Syracuse’s game against Stanford on Friday night, forward Kris Joseph showed he’s capable of being the player the Orange need him to be if it wants to contend for the national title.
Joseph scored nine straight points late in the second half, propelling SU to a 69-63 win over Stanford to capture the NIT Season Tip-Off. He finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, and was named Most Outstanding Player.
It was the kind of performance that the Orange hoped it would routinely see out of Joseph last season. But too often, Joseph was content to be a complementary player, frequently deferring to other players. Remember that it was Scoop Jardine—not Joseph—who took Syracuse’s most critical shot against Marquette in the NCAA tournament last year.
That wasn’t the case on Friday.
Flashback to 9:06 left in the second half with the Orange trailing 50-45. The Orange had three possessions that it came up empty on.
First, Jardine tried an alley-oop that ended up sailing out of bounds. Then, Dion Waiters took a contested 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock. On the ensuing possession, Jardine tried to get SU in transition, but instead threw the ball to Joseph, who wasn’t looking, and then it hit the back of his head.
Not exactly the kind of execution you’d expect from the No. 5 team in the country.
Of course, rankings this early in the season are essentially meaningless. (Look no further than the 2001-02 season, when SU rose to as high as No. 10 before completely missing the NCAA tournament).
But what can elevate SU’s status to a true elite team is what unfolded after those sloppy three possessions gave way to an Anthony Brown putback dunk, which gave Stanford its largest lead of the game, a 52-45 advantage with 7:28 left.
It started when Joseph took his man off the dribble and hit a contested fadeaway jumper. He followed that with a layup in traffic, before nailing another jumper and capping his personal nine point run with a 3-pointer.
All of the sudden, SU was down just four points and had wrestled some of the momentum back.
SU finally took the lead with 2:56 left when Joseph banked in a 18-footer to give put the Orange up 61-60, its first lead of the game. It was part of a 10-0 run that put the Orange in control.
Fittingly, it was Joseph’s steal and free throw with 22 seconds left that put the game out of reach.
“He did the things we need to win,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He’s a very good player, and I envision him getting better as he goes along.”
The key area of improvement for Joseph is obvious. If he can consistently play at the same level he did in the last six minutes on Friday in clutch situations, the Orange will be every bit the elite team it was projected to be in the preseason.
“It was all about heart in those last six minutes of the game,” Joseph said.
If Joseph can show that heart all season, the Orange will be in very good shape.