It was looking like another long afternoon for the Orange.
Ten minutes into the first half of their 58-49 win over the Louisville Cardinals on Saturday, Syracuse had scored just 9 points. Louisville was dissecting the interior of the Orange zone and had jumped out to a 15-9 lead.
Then James Southerland went to work, and the rest of the Orange followed suit.
When all was said and done, the Orange were sitting at 30-1, heading into the Big East Tournament on a high note, having demolished and demoralized yet another rival and set a school record for regular-season wins in the process.
“His play was inspiring,” guard Brandon Triche said of Southerland. “You always want to see a guy who’s struggling do well.”
Southerland had indeed been struggling going into the Orange’s home finale.
In the nine games since he scored 15 on 5-of-10 shooting in the Orange’s loss to Notre Dame, he was shooting an abysmal 29 percent from the field. In that time he made just two 3-pointers, ostensibly his greatest strength on the offensive end.
His minutes suffered accordingly, and he appeared on the verge of dropping out of the rotation altogether, leading to talk that Syracuse’s vaunted depth might be smoke and mirrors masking a more typical 7-man rotation.
“You’ve got to make shots. That’s the bottom line,” Jim Boeheim said after Saturday’s win.
Southerland did that and more against Louisville. He scored 7 points on 2-of-3 shooting, hitting 1-of-2 from deep and getting to the line twice. All of his points came during a crucial 17-1 run in the first half that helped the Orange seize control after going down early.
Trailing 15-9 with 9:43 to go in the first half, Southerland got the run started by draining a 3. Moments later he blocked a Wayne Blackshear jumper and corralled the loose ball. At the other end, Dion Waiters hit a triple of his own to give SU a 17-16 lead, its first of the night, and one it would never relinquish.
“[Southerland] just has so much energy on and off the court. He’s a guy when you see him down you always want to pick him up,” Triche said.
On Saturday, Southerland returned the favor.
His final line of 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 blocks probably won’t jump out at anybody. Nonetheless, he energized a Syracuse team that looked to be in for another long, grinding game reminiscent of its last meeting with the Cardinals, an unsightly 52-51 affair on Feb. 13 that the Orange escaped as much as won.
In the bigger picture, an engaged Southerland could be key to the Orange’s tournament hopes. His shooting and cutting give a huge boost Syracuse’s often stagnant halfcourt offense. And while he’s often seen as just a shooter, he’s capable of bringing so much more to the table with his defense and rebounding on the wing.
When he’s locked in, he’s a manic defensive presence, his quickness, height and long arms helping him contest effectively and recover if he gets beaten off the dribble or runs someone off the 3-point line with one of his frantic closeouts. Statistically, he’s the best shot blocker on the team outside of the three bigs, Fab Melo, Baye Keita, and Rakeem Christmas.