While it was actually their first game of March Madness, Syracuse’s game against Western Michigan Thursday afternoon looked more like a December game at home, right down to the large fan turnout in nearby Buffalo, as they cruised to a 77-53 win. The third-seeded Orange were tied with the Broncos early at 2-2, then led the rest of the way as they moved to 28-5 on the season. WMU ends their season at 23-10.
By virtue of the win, third-seeded SU sets up a date with 11-seed Dayton, who edged Ohio State earlier in the day, 60-59. The Flyers will take on Syracuse on Saturday with a Sweet Sixteen berth on the line.
Western Michigan seemed intimidated by the 2-3 zone of the Orange, turning the ball over four times in the opening 3:30 of the game and 11 times in the first half. Seven of those turnovers were Syracuse steals, which were converted into 13 points. The SU defense was strong throughout, holding the Broncos to 34.7 percent shooting in the game, and their rebounding was just as good on both ends, holding a 41-25 on the glass.
That defensive effort from Syracuse was in effect early, as they opened the scoring when Tyler Ennis came up with a steal and set up Jerami Grant for a dunk. Western Michigan struck back with a basket for their lone tie, but C.J. Fair hit a jumper to put the Orange back in front, then Trevor Cooney splashed a three to make it 7-2.
After WMU got a bucket, SU posted ten straight points to blow open the game. Grant made a sensational spin on a drive to free himself for a jam and force a Bronco timeout at 12-4, then a Cooney three followed by a heady save and pass by Rakeem Christmas led Ennis to a lay-up to end the burst. The scoreboard read 17-4 in favor of Syracuse with less than eight minutes elapsed.
A three and a lay-up drew Western Michigan within eight, but shortly after, the Orange strung together six straight points to go up 25-11 with under seven minutes left in the half. A Bronco jumper got them on the board again, but Fair got his own miss and snuck in for a reverse lay-up and drained the foul shot for a three-point play. Ennis knocked home a three, then dropped in a lay-up off a spin to put SU up by 20 with just under three minutes on the clock.
WMU cut into the lead with an 8-2 run, but Cooney buried another three to stop the Broncos’ momentum. Fair followed that with a midair rebound and putback in one motion that put Syracuse in front 40-21 with a few seconds remaining. Western missed a three before the horn, and SU took their 19-point lead to the locker room.
The Broncos came out of the locker room firing and scored five of the first seven points out of the break. Cooney wiped out most of that advantage with a four-point-play, then Fair drove in for another reverse lay-up, stretching the Orange lead to 48-26.
Western Michigan started clicking on offense, but Grant matched their scores, highlighted by a huge tomahawk dunk. For good measure, the sophomore forward closed a personal eight-point run for SU with a putback and a lay-up to give Syracuse a 56-32 lead less than eight minutes into the second half.
The question from there would be how large the Orange lead would grow to. Fair tallied another three-point-play to make it 61-35 just before the midpoint of the half.
The defensive highlight of the game came a couple minutes after that when Michael Gbinije chased down a Western Michigan player in transition and swatted his layup off the glass for a blocked shot.
Ennis would push the Syracuse lead to its largest point around the under-four media timeout. The point guard hit a pull-up jumper while being fouled with just under four minutes left, then after the stoppage, knocked down the free throw to put SU up, 71-43.
Jim Boeheim used the stoppage to begin emptying his bench. Freshman guard Ron Patterson gave the pro-Orange crowd a couple highlights in the final minute by drilling a pair of threes, the latter ending the scoring on the night at 77-53.
Trevor Cooney paced the Orange with 18 points, including a dozen in the first half. Cooney entered the game having made only 12 of his last 57 tries from deep (21.1 percent), but hit 4-of-8 three-point shots in the game. Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant each tacked on 16 points for SU. Ennis posted 11 points in the first half on 5-of-6 shooting. C. J. Fair started slowly, but ended up with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Two Western Michigan players cracked double figures, as Tucker Haymond and Shayne Whittington each had 11 points. The MAC Player of the Year, David Brown, tried to fight through a leg injury, but struggled, scoring nine points on 2-of-12 shooting.
Syracuse and Dayton (24-10) both are in a second tournament field this year, as they were both in the Maui Invitational in November, but did not meet. The Flyers feature a balanced offense as three players average double figures in scoring. Jordan Sibert tops the squad at 12.4 points per game, followed by Devin Oliver at 12.0, and Dyshawn Pierre with 11.1 points per game. A fourth Flyer, Vee Sanford, fell just shy at at 9.9 points per contest.
Dayton also employs a deep bench, as nine players averaged over 12 minutes per game. While they do not take an exorbitant amount of three-pointers, the Flyers have sank just under 37.5 percent of them on the season collectively and four players have drilled at least 39 percent of their shots from behind the arc.
The game will be televised on TBS with a scheduled tip-off of 7 p.m.