Syracuse basketball starts off strong, then hangs on to top West Virginia

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 21: West Virginia Mountaineers against the Syracuse Orange in the second round of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 21, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Sunday evening, Syracuse led by 14 points in the first half, lost the lead in the second half, then used a late run of ten straight points to build enough of a cushion to hold off West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen with a 75-72 win. The #11-seed Orange (18-9) held a 70-59 lead with under 2:30 to play, but allowed the #3-seed Mountaineers (19-10) a 9-2 run to get within four, and eventually two points, before holding on for the victory.

SU rode a strong defensive performance to that big first half lead, but West Virginia shot over 53 percent from the field in the second half to climb back into the game. The Syracuse offense was effective in both halves, shooting just under 52 percent in the game, including hitting 14 three-pointers at north of a 45 percent clip. The Orange shot 58.3 percent in the second half, helping them survive when they turned the ball over 15 times and gave up 19 offensive rebounds in the game, a dozen coming in the second session.

SU opened the game with an 11-2 run, getting one triple from Buddy Boeheim and a pair of them from Joe Girard III, the latter from Girard capping the opening salvo. The two teams traded markers for three minutes and change, then Syracuse added another run, this one a 7-0 sprint, to take their biggest lead of the game.

Quincy Guerrier started the burst with a nice fake and drive for a lay-up. Marek Dolezaj finished a pick-and-roll with a strong lay-up on the left side, then Girard swished a left of center three for a 24-10 Orange lead before the midpoint of the first half.

The two teams traded three more scores, then West Virginia scored 13 of the half’s final 18 points in the final four minutes. That Mountaineer flurry left SU holding a 35-29 halftime lead.

Syracuse started the second half quickly, as well, returning to the floor with an 8-2 run to double their lead. Dolezaj connected from 18 feet, then Guerrier followed a West Virginia deuce by draining a three from the left side and Boeheim added one from the right wing. The back-to-back triples built a 43-31 Orange lead in less than two minutes.

Three minutes later, the Mountaineers ripped off an 18-6 run, which was actually two 9-0 streaks bookending two more Boeheim treys. Sean McNeil hit four threes in the run, including three straight to comprise the second 9-0 stretch. The flurry gave West Virginia a 53-52 edge.

SU came right back, retaking the lead when Boeheim drove the right baseline for a lay-up, then Dolezaj slung an elegant bounce pass to a cutting Robert Braswell for another lay-up. The Mountaineers tied the game with a triple, then two Dolezaj foul shots and a Boeheim jumper made it 60-56, SU.

West Virginia added another three to pull within one, but Syracuse struck back with ten straight points. Boeheim made a triple, then Dolezaj dropped in a putback. Dolezaj then threw a great pass underneath to Kadary Richmond, who found Braswell all alone in the left corner for a three. Dolezaj then made a pretty touch pass for a Guerrier dunk and a 70-59 Orange advantage with 2:23 to play.

The Mountaineers and their pressure defense did not go away, forcing a pair of turnovers as they posted a 9-2 run to draw within 72-68.

Boeheim drew a foul with 21 seconds to play and made both ends of the bonus opportunity, making it a six-point game. West Virginia made two lay-ups around a missed front end at the line by Girard, making it a 74-72 game with 4.3 seconds left.

A kicked ball call gave SU possession out of bounds once more with 3.1 seconds on the clock. Boeheim was fouled after receiving the inbounds pass with 2.2 seconds to play. He made the first foul shot, then missed the second. West Virginia rebounded, but Richmond forced a traveling call with two-tenths of a second remaining to eliminate the possibility of a Mountaineer heave sending the game to overtime.

Buddy Boeheim shot 7-for-11 in the second half, including 5-of-8 from deep, as he piled up 22 of his 25 points after the break. Marek Dolezaj, Joe Girard III, and Quincy Guerrier each added a dozen points while contributing in other areas of the stat sheet. Dolezaj had six boards and five assists, Girard led the team with seven assists and hit four triples in the first half, and Guerrier blocked five shots and led the squad with seven rebounds.

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Sean McNeil put on a strong Boeheim imitation in the second half for the Mountaineers, exploding for 17 of his 23 points and connecting on five of his seven triples after halftime. Emmitt Matthews, Jr. had 14 points while Miles McBride had 11 points, a team-leading seven assists, and three steals. Taz Sherman added 11 points off the bench.

The Orange will be off until the Sweet Sixteen gets underway on Saturday when they will face the second-seeded Houston Cougars (26-3), who earned their place by edging Rutgers on Sunday night, 63-60. The Cougars took the lead with 24.1 seconds remaining on a three-point play on an offensive rebound by Tramon Mark, then Marcus Sasser added two foul shots with nine seconds remaining after a Rutgers turnover.

Quentin Grimes, who leads Houston with an average of 18.0 points per game and 86 threes on the season, hit five more threes in their victory, as he led the team with 22 points and nine rebounds. DeJon Jarreau backed him with 17 points after averaging 10.6 points on the season. Sasser made 66 triples and scored 13.7 points per contest on the season, but struggled on Sunday night, finishing with just four points on 1-for-9 shooting.

Game time and television network for Saturday’s Houston-Syracuse contest are yet to be determined.

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About Jim Stechschulte 686 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.