Jerami Grant knew Syracuse would come back.
The Orange fell in an 18-point hole just nine minutes into the game and looked out of whack on both ends. Villanova started 8-of-13 while Syracuse was 3-of-12.
But Grant’s confidence in his team never wavered.
“They’re a good team, an aggressive team,” Grant said, “but at the same time I feel like we’re a better team.”
That proved to be a true for the next 31 minutes, as Syracuse caught the streaking Wildcats and never looked back. After a shockingly futile start, No. 2 Syracuse (12-0) responded to knock off No. 8 Villanova (11-1), 78-62. SU embarked on a 20-0 run spanning six minutes to turn a shocking 25-7 deficit into a 27-25 advantage.
Trevor Cooney dropped 21, Tyler Ennis finished with 20 and C.J. Fair added 17 as the Orange avoided the upset and remained unblemished on the season.
“We stepped up big time today,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “This was the first adverse situation where we’re really down a lot, and nothing fazed them.”
Getting fazed would have been easy. Villanova jumped out to a 7-2 lead after a Darrun Hilliard free throw. It took three minutes for the orange balloons to finally be released and for the 28,135 to stop clapping and sit down.
The fans grew even antsier as the Wildcats lead swelled to 20-5 and eventually 25-7.
“Coach was saying we could end up losing by 30 if we don’t pick it up,” Syracuse forward C.J. Fair said.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Syracuse won by 16. What seemed nearly impossible became palpable with a rush of high-powered offense and tenacious defense.
The run spanned from the 10:45 mark to 4:52. Twenty points for Syracuse in just six minutes.
Nothing for Villanova. Not a single point.
It started on a Trevor Cooney 3-pointer off a pass from Grant. On SU’s next possession, Cooney up-faked and drew a foul, nailing both free throws.
Villanova missed nine consecutive field goals, while Syracuse hit 6-of-11 during the run.
DaJuan Coleman stood from the bench and clapped enthusiastically. Fair attacked the rim and put back a Cooney miss with authority. A Baye Moussa Keita tip-in cut the deficit to two. The energy that was absent to start oozed abundantly.
The Orange took its first lead on an Ennis floater, and pushed it to 32-27 on his jumper with three minutes left in the half.
Taking the under-4 timeout, Fair, Ennis, Keita, Cooney and Grant walked off the court in style, all smirking as they moved toward the sideline. They had regained their swagger, ultimately closing out the half with a 38-34 lead into halftime.
“We fought back,” Cooney said. “Going down (18) to a team like Villanova it’s tough to come back, and it showed a lot about us tonight.
“We knew Villanova was going to come out really aggressive and throw the first punch, and we knew we were going to have to take it.”
That they did. Syracuse didn’t just take the punch. It delivered what would prove to be the knockout.
Boeheim credited his defense for stepping up in the last 10 minutes, preventing Villanova from getting good looks in the latter half of the stanza. Ennis said getting out in transition opened up Syracuse’s offense. Easy buckets, coupled with stymying defense, paved the way for the improbable comeback.
The Orange went on a 40-12 run that started in the first half and flowed into the second. Eventually, the lead grew to double-digits. 25-7 Villanova transformed into 47-37 Syracuse and a nightmarish nine minutes were soon forgotten.
“We were lucky enough to get big stops and get back in the game,” Cooney said. “We can’t do that, especially in ACC play.”
After the run, the Wildcats hung around. James Bell, who finished with 25 points before fouling out, hit a 3 from the right wing to trim the deficit to 64-59.
But Grant, who was relatively quiet until the game’s final minutes, hit two free throws and a layup off a pretty pass from Ennis to bump the lead to 68-59 with 2:30 to go.
Keita blocked a Bell layup, flailing his hands in excitement and screaming “Let’s go!” as he boogied off the court.
Syracuse made its free throws in the game’s final minutes – including four by Cooney – and pulled away for its biggest win of the season thus far.
Grant called Villanova the best team SU has played so far. Despite the horrific start, Grant was never scared.
“You’ve just got to keep playing hard,” he said, “no matter how the game’s going.”
Published on December 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm
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