Jim Boeheim knew this was a tough Big East opener. What the Syracuse coach wasn't counting on was the sudden attrition that has stricken his team.
Forced to play more than 14 minutes of the second half with just six players Thursday night, the Orange gamely stayed in contention against No. 10 Pittsburgh. But the Panthers made key play after key play down the stretch and proved worthy of their ranking by holding on for a 74-66 victory.
The Panthers (13-2) have won three straight while Syracuse (11-4) saw its two-game winning streak snapped. It was the teams' first meeting since the Orange's 65-61 victory last March in New York in the championship game of the Big East Tournament.
SU started this one only seven deep among its scholarship players, partly because senior forward Matt Gorman is out indefinitely with a knee injury suffered early in the week in practice. Then freshman forward Mike Jones, the close friend and roommate of fellow frosh and Niagara Falls native Paul Harris, announced Wednesday he was homesick and transferring back to South Carolina.
Fast forward to Thursday's second half. Senior forward Terrence Roberts, just back after missing two games with knee trouble, was briefly KO'd by an elbow to the mouth with 18:38 left. He was bloodied, required stitches, and didn't come back until there was 4:10 left.
Syracuse was still close when he returned as Pitt led, 65-60. But the Orange's energy tank was clearly running low by that point. Syracuse had just two field goals the rest of the way, discounting Darryl Watkins' meaningless layup at the buzzer.
Harris said he tried in vain to convince Jones to stay. But Jones, who is probably heading for South Carolina or Clemson, was buried behind senior small forward Demetris Nichols and had averaged just six minutes a game. While clearly disgusted with Jones' decision not to stick with the program, Boeheim couldn't complain about his team's effort while short-handed.
"We battled hard the whole night and did a lot of good things," he said. "We knew this would be a difficult starting game and it certainly was."
"We have to go with what we got," Harris said. "This is who we have and we have to keep playing, no matter what happens."
Pittsburgh never trailed in the second half after center Aaron Gray's jumper 19 seconds into the stanza gave the Panthers a 35-34 lead. The game was tied at 40-40 when guard Levance Fields drilled a three-pointer over Harris to start a 13-2 run that put the Panthers in front by 11.
Fields, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, poured in a career-high 24 points after entering the game averaging just 8.7.
"I think it's a knock people don't think we have one go-to guy," Fields said. "But we feel everybody is a go-to guy down the stretch. That makes us even more dangerous."
Guard Eric Devendorf led Syracuse with 17 points while Nichols, the Big East's leading scorer at 19.8 points, was held to just 11 on 4-of-15 shooting.
"I had the shots I've made all year," Nichols said. "It was one of those nights."
Harris had six points on 3-of-7 shooting but grabbed a game-high nine rebounds in 23 minutes. He's averaging 10.9 points and 7.5 boards -- tops among conference freshmen. His best moment came when he whipped the crowd of 21,045 into a frenzy by stealing a Fields pass and driving for a dunk with 8:33 left to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 58-53.
Syracuse was within two (60-58) when Harris forced Pitt to take a timeout with 5:49 left by trapping the ball in the corner with five seconds left on the shot clock.
But Nichols stepped away from Antonio Graves on the inbounds, trying to double-team down low, and it was a fatal mistake. Graves drilled a trey with 5:40 left to put the lead back to five.
"Just miscommunication," Nichols said glumly.
The Panthers hit 14 of 27 from the field in the second half. They were 6 of 10 from three-point range, silencing the crowd with several clutch jumpers.
"We'd get the shot clock down to 10 or less a lot [on defense]," Harris said. "I'm going to box out and watch the ball as they're shooting and it kept going in. I was like, 'Dang, man.' It happened like three times in a row. We've just got to keep working."
The Orange has another toughie Sunday night at No. 15 Marquette.