While Syracuse’s 71-69 home win over Louisiana Tech on Sunday was not a work of art, several things happened that suggest things may be looking a little better for the Orange. First, SU (6-3) simply snapped a two-game slide after a week off and did so by pulling out the game late after they were routed in the final minutes in their last game by St. John’s. The Orange pulled out Sunday’s contest by getting a bucket from Rakeem Christmas with under three seconds to play after they gave back a ten-point lead in the final four minutes to the Bulldogs (7-3).
Second, Trevor Cooney showed is still capable of filling it up from outside, dropping in four three-pointers as part of his season-high 25 points. Third, Tyler Roberson had a monster game as an energetic rebounder, bouncing back from both injury and some less than stellar outings.
Fourth, SU won while starting big men Christmas and Chris McCullough missed significant portions of the game due to foul trouble. Christmas sat out the final 10:43 of the first half after picking up his second foul and nearly five minutes of the second half when he picked up his fourth foul. McCullough picked up his third and fourth infractions in just a few seconds apart during the first 80 seconds of the second half and sat for eight-and-a-half minutes, only coming in when a replacement was needed for Christmas down low.
Louisiana Tech ran off the opening tip and scored with five seconds elapsed, but Trevor Cooney matched that bucket with a drive, then set up Rakeem Christmas for a transition dunk and a 4-2 lead less than a minute into the action. The Bulldogs used a pair of alley-oop slams to take an 8-6 lead, but SU responded to the latter dunk by pushing the ball and getting another Christmas slam, this one including a foul. The senior center dropped in the free throw after the first media time out to put Syracuse back in front, 9-8.
After Louisiana Tech put together a pair of quick baskets, the Orange scored eight straight points as part of a 12-2 burst. Cooney banged home his first triple of the game, then Kaleb Joseph added one of his own to cap the 8-0 run. On the heels of two Bulldog free throws, Joseph dropped in a floater, then lobbed the ball to Chris McCullough for a lay-up and a 21-14 SU lead just past the midpoint of the opening half.
The Bulldogs got a dunk to end the run, but Tyler Roberson tipped in his own miss for the Orange, then Michael Gbinije pulled up from the left elbow to stretch the Syracuse lead to nine. Louisiana Tech then held SU to a lone field goal in over six minutes. The strong defense allowed the Bulldogs to outscore the Orange by a 12-4 margin and climb back within 29-28 with just over a minute left in the half.
Syracuse snapped out of their drought when Roberson corralled an offensive rebound and fired a pass to Cooney. Without pausing, Cooney elevated and drilled a three-pointer to put SU in front by four. Louisiana Tech replied with a long three of their own and the Orange claimed a 32-31 halftime lead.
With Michael Gbinije on the bench with what would later be called a “medical issue”, Syracuse opened the second half with a 7-2 burst, needing less than three minutes to push their lead to a half dozen, as Roberson sandwiched a Cooney three-point-play with a pair of putbacks. The Orange would soon stretch the lead to nine points again. Joseph spun into the lane before hitting a short fadeaway jumper, then turned a scramble play into two more points as he gathered a loose ball and hit Roberson with a lead pass that the sophomore slammed home.
The Bulldogs chopped the gap down to four, but Cooney chased a pair of Christmas free throws by taking a handoff from him on a quick inbounds play and burying a three from the right corner. The triple put the Orange up, 48-39, with 10:27 left. Less than 30 seconds later, Christmas was headed to the bench with his fourth foul, which was part of a three-point play for the visitors.
Syracuse again pushed the margin to nine points, but Louisiana Tech clawed back within four with under eight minutes on the clock. Cooney responded by drilling a pair of foul shots, then a three-pointer over two defenders. The hot shooting put SU in front by nine again, this time at 59-50. Shortly after, the Orange lead would reach ten points for the first time, but the Bulldogs scored on consecutive tips to clip that lead to a half dozen.
Christmas, who returned to the floor just before that second bucket, responded with a close-in score, then Roberson cleaned up after Joseph was rejected in transition. Roberson’s lay-in made it a 65-55 game with 4:18 on the clock.
Roberson, however, gave some fuel to the Bulldogs, fouling on a three-point shot. Louisiana Tech got all three free throws, then tacked on a dunk to halve the margin with just over three minutes left.
Cooney came to the rescue, driving for an SU basket. The Bulldogs, however, drained a three to make it a four-point game, then took advantage of a shaky foul call that ended McCullough’s night by knocking down two free throws. The charity shots drew Louisiana Tech within 67-65 with 1:57 left.
With the shot clock getting low, B.J. Johnson drove for the Orange, drawing a foul. He coolly dropped in both shots with 1:25 on the clock. Louisiana Tech responded with a lay-up, then made a strong defensive stand. Cooney was blocked on a drive to the rim, then recovered the ball and was forced to heave the ball from three. He missed and the Bulldogs raced out for the game-tying lay-up. SU advanced the ball into the frontcourt, then called time out with 22.7 seconds left.
Cooney was again the first option for Syracuse, but Louisiana Tech denied him the ball throughout the possession, forcing Joseph to work with Christmas. Joseph drove off the center’s screen, but his shot was blocked and the ball went out of bounds with possession belonging to the Orange. With that, the coaching chess match was on.
SU used their final timeout to set up the play, but after they lined up, the Bulldogs called a timeout of their own.
The Orange came out of the second break in a different alignment. Christmas made a sharp cut toward the inbounding Cooney, who hit him with a quick pass on the block. One decisive dribble into the key followed by a jump hook and Syracuse held a 71-69 lead.
The Bulldogs used their final timeout to set up their final shot, needing to cover the length of the floor after an officials’ review set 2.8 seconds on the clock. Louisiana Tech inbounded to Raheem Appleby, who put up a shot from left of the jump circle after crossing the midcourt line. His heave fell short, though, brushing the front of the net as it fell to the ground.
Trevor Cooney made 4-of-8 three-point shots and was the primary offensive force for the Orange in the second half, pouring in 17 points after the break. Tyler Roberson had his second double-double of the season, posting personal bests of 14 points and 17 rebounds. In fact, Roberson’s 11 offensive rebounds would have marked a career-high for the sophomore forward. Rakeem Christmas was the third SU player in double figures with 13 points, which Kaleb Joseph chipped in with nine points. It was not all roses for Joseph, as the freshman point guard turned it over eight times in the game. Chris McCullough was active on defense, blocking three shots and coming up with three steals, the latter a mark matched by Cooney.
Raheem Appleby was a thorn in the side of Syracuse during the first half, hitting all six of his shots, including a trio of treys for 15 first-half points. He would cool off and pace Louisiana Tech with 20 points, a mark matched by Alex Hamilton, who poured in 18 points after intermission. Michale Kyser chipped in with ten points for the Bulldogs and also swatted four SU shots. While being held scoreless, Kenneth Smith handed out nine assists.
The Orange will get back into action on Saturday when they face their second former Big East conference mate in as many weeks when they travel to Villanova. The seventh-ranked Wildcats will bring a 10-0 record to the game and their resume is impressive, as they have beaten Virginia Commonwealth, Michigan, Illinois, and Temple already on the season. Seven different players are averaging at least seven points for Villanova, led by Dylan Ennis, the older brother of former Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis.
It will be a 1:00pm tip for SU and ‘Nova, with the game being televised by FOX.