Men's Basketball

John Clay: Syracuse recovers quickly with win at Cincinnati

Syracuse's James Southerland put up a shot in front of Cincinnati center Cheikh Mbodj in the first half of the Orange's 60-53 road win Monday night.
Syracuse's James Southerland put up a shot in front of Cincinnati center Cheikh Mbodj in the first half of the Orange's 60-53 road win Monday night. AP

CINCINNATI — The Orange would call it a hiccup.

After all, considering what Jim Boeheim's club had to overcome with the Bernie Fine situation and all that mess that started the Syracuse basketball season, they weren't going to let losing Fab Melo for a pair of games stop it.

One game? OK.

Two? No way.

Less than 48 hours removed from losing its first game of the season and its six-week stay at the top of The AP poll, Syracuse walked into a white-out, sold-out Fifth Third Arena, kept its poise and pulled the train back on the tracks with a 60-53 win over Cincinnati.

"I told the players that was as good a bounce-back regular-season win at Syracuse as I can remember," said Boeheim, who got career victory No. 877, moving him ahead of former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp into sole possession of fourth place on the Division I list.

Not that the Orange made it look easy in the final minute. Kentucky made its final eight free throws inside the final minute in its six-point win over Alabama on Saturday. Boeheim's team missed six of its final seven attempts from the foul line inside the final 59 seconds. And won anyway.

But first, some context. Despite the scandal of alleged sex abuse that caused Boeheim's longtime assistant to resign, Syracuse jumped out to a school-record 20-0 start, ascending to the No. 1 ranking thanks to losses by North Carolina, Ohio State and UK.

Then last week, at the start of Syracuse's spring semester, news came that Melo, the team's 7-foot sophomore center, would not be making the trip to South Bend or Cincinnati because of what has been reported to be an academic problem.

Melo averages seven points and five rebounds, but the Orange missed his 7-foot presence on both ends of the floor. Notre Dame took advantage, pulling off a rush-the-court 67-58 upset that dropped Syracuse to No. 3 in the AP poll, No. 4 in the coaches' rankings.

"I was very disappointed with the way we played," Boeheim said Monday night. "I just thought we played a horrible basketball game offensively and defensively. I don't think I've ever had a game where not one guy — and we're playing nine guys — not one guy played well. We all played badly, every guy."

So shocked was Boeheim, he even broke his habit of not watching much game film.

"I watched the tape twice because I couldn't believe what I was watching," he said.

He might watch this one multiple times, just for the enjoyment.

Syracuse doesn't have a standout star, necessarily, but the Orange have great balance among their veterans. Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine are seniors. Brandon Triche and James Southerland are juniors. So when Cincinnati owned a 42-40 lead inside the final 10 minutes, experience went to work.

After missing its first eight three-pointers, Syracuse's Jardine and Triche knocked down back-to-back threes. Jardine scored again. Joseph scored on a drive. Jardine scored on another drive.

"Those are key guys for us," Boeheim said. "I thought they did a great job."

When Jardine nailed another triple with 1:52 left, the Syracuse lead was 59-48, and the Bearcat backers were heading for the exits.

"Our defense was atrocious," said an unhappy UC coach Mick Cronin. "But you have to give Syracuse credit."

Boeheim's club averages a little more than 10 turnovers per game. This night, coming off a loss, in front of a hostile crowd, it turned over the basketball just eight times.

Rakeem Christmas, the 6-foot-9 freshman stepping in for Melo, grabbed nine rebounds and did a decent enough job on Yancy Gates to earn Boeheim's praise. And the hope is that Melo could be back in uniform this weekend when West Virginia comes to the Carrier Dome.

"I think this team is a confident team," Boeheim said. "At Syracuse, when you lose one game, they think the season is over. We've got a little more strength than that."

Monday night, it showed.