Rakeem Christmas helped seal an 86-83 overtime win against Wake Forest with a whopping career-high 35 points on Tuesday evening.
It was the first game Syracuse played without its star freshman, Chris McCullough, who tore his ACL in a win over Florida State on Sunday. Without McCullough in the lineup, Syracuse consistently featured its senior center in the post.
“It’s unfortunate but its’s one of those things that happens in sports. Ohio state lost two guys and they won a national championship,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We were patient and we have worked really hard [this season] to get Rak the ball.”
It worked on Tuesday, as Christmas repeatedly punished Wake Forest inside, shooting 13-21 from the field. He was also 9-12 on free throws and locked in nine rebounds as well as two steals.
Six of those free throws came in the final minute of overtime, with Christmas going perfect at the line to help preserve a tenuous lead. Boeheim pushed for Christmas to get more attention following his dominant performance.
“We aren’t rated. If we were in the top 10 [Christmas] would get attention,” he said. “He is capable of a big game. If we keep winning he will get more recognition.”
It has been an unlikely transformation for Christmas, who was utilized as a role player in his first three years at SU. Last season, he averaged 5.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. In his final campaign, he’s averaging 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds.
“I just had to wait my turn,” said Christmas on the improvement.
Now his turn has arrived, and SU is atop the ACC standings, one of only two undefeated teams remaining (Virginia is the other).
Compare the state of Syracuse now to how it was in December, when the Orange was coming off two consecutive losses to Michigan then St. Johns. Looking back at the 57-69 loss to St. Johns, Boeheim denounced his team: “We are nowhere near where we were last year, not even close,” he said.
In contrast, a happy Boeheim smiled and continuously praised the efforts of his team on Tuesday.
“We overcame a lot today in this game,” Boeheim said. “We were tired. Three games in the past seven days. This was a tremendous win.”