BOSTON — Syracuse players could only watch in disbelief as yet another Jordan Taylor 3 splashed through the net late in the second half of the Orange’s heart-stopping 64-63 victory over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.
Taylor’s shot capped an unearthly shooting run that saw the Badgers nail 6 triples in a row, and it put Wisconsin up 59-56 after trailing by as many as 10 points in the contest.
But Syracuse responded, as it did all game long, and at the other end Baye Moussa Keita, the Orange’s much-maligned backup center, put back a Kris Joseph miss in traffic.
On the defensive end, with Keita anchoring the middle, the Orange’s cephalopoid zone began to flex out well past the arc. Wisconsin failed to hit a 3 for the rest of the game.
“We left a lot on Baye inside to make plays in there,” head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “But you’ve got to get [shooters] off their spots.”
With Rakeem Christmas showing his youth in 11 mostly ineffective minutes, Keita was the defensive anchor the Fab Melo-less Orange needed. He pulled down 5 rebounds and blocked a shot in 28 minutes of run, and helped hold the Badgers to 7-of-22 shooting inside the arc. He also added 4 points before he fouled out with just under a minute to go.
His two buckets both came in response to Badger 3s. The Orange kept running their offense and scoring even as Wisconsin was unleashing a fusillade of triples unmatched in this year’s tournament.
He had to be especially happy about his first points of the game, a layup on a side pick-and-roll with Scoop Jardine that stretched SU’s lead to 53-50.
“He made a great catch on that bounce pass from Scoop, which is—that’s a 50/50 play,” Boeheim said. “Not that you’ll make it; 50/50 that you’ll catch it.”
Keita’s faced a lot of criticism for his hands, but there he was, finishing on the roll and pulling down rebounds in traffic.
It’s been a long season for him. His rebounding and defense regressed badly from his encouraging freshman campaign, and with Fab Melo emerging as a force Keita had essentially dropped out of the rotation by the time the Big East tournament rolled around.
But of course, the point of the Orange’s hydra-like depth is that when one player goes down, another’s there to take his place. Keita played one of his best games of the season in the Orange’s most important one, and his defense was key to stopping a Wisconsin team that for a stretch seemed like it was playing an increasingly ludicrous game of HORSE.
“[Baye] definitely stepped up big,” guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “Even though [he] has limited minutes he still worked hard every day, he’s still in the weight room and stuff like that, so he went out there and played hard. We couldn’t have won the game without him.”
If you’d told Wisconsin before the game that they would make 14 3s while holding Kris Joseph and James Southerland, SU’s latest offensive spark plug, to a combined 7 points on 3-of-10 shooting, the Badgers would have been ecstatic.
But Keita and fellow sophomore CJ Fair both had bounce-back performances to pick up the slack, and while Fair’s 15 points, 7 boards and 4 steals will steal the limelight, Keita’s defense was a huge factor.
With Keita holding down the lane, rotating and contesting shots like a maniac, the Orange defense could extend its tentacles. Wisconsin started missing 3s, and the Syracuse team that everyone counted out coming into the tourney is just one game away from punching its ticket to New Orleans.
Photo by Kicia Sears for The Juice Online