SYRACUSE — You could pass off Syracuse University’s recent misfortunes as an aberration, insignificant hurdles over the course of a long season. But that was before Tuesday’s 67-62 home loss to Georgia Tech, so perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the Orange.
In front of a Senior Night crowd of 26,666 at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse once again appeared perplexing offensively while the Yellow Jackets, who had lost four in a row coming into the game, were the superior team.
Now that the Orange (26-4, 13-4 ACC) have lost four of their last five games, any thoughts of earning a top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament seems far-fetched. Especially when you fall at home to a Georgia Tech squad that had won just four times since the start of the New Year.
“We went on our streak at the early part of the season and we had the mentality that nobody could beat us, and we are going to find ways to win,” Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis said. “We’ve kind of gotten away from that the last couple of games.”
The Yellow Jackets (14-16, 5-12) played as if their record was ambiguous, taking control of the game early and holding off a furious comeback by Syracuse. The Orange trailed 59-47 with 5:12 left in the game but managed to whittle the deficit to a single possession with 36 seconds left as Georgia Tech crumbled under full court pressure. The Yellow Jackets also missed three front-ends of the 1-and-1.
But Trae Golden made six consecutive free throws in the final seconds and Syracuse was finished. It ruined the brilliant performance of C.J. Fair, who matched his career high with 28 points in his final game in the Carrier Dome. Ennis added 18 points and seven assists, but it wasn’t enough against the Yellow Jackets who were led by Golden’s 16 points.
Syracuse shot just 39.1 percent for the game and 5 of 17 from long distance, including three in the final 4:54. “This isn’t a defensive problem,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We have an offensive problem. … When you shoot the ball like we are now, you’re in such a hole it’s very difficult to get back.”
The Orange are going backward at the wrong time of the season. They won a school-best 25 in a row before a stunning home loss to a mundane Boston College team on Feb. 19. Syracuse fell in its next game at Duke, a game in which the usually sanguine Boeheim came unglued in the final minute, drew a technical foul and was ejected.
After a narrow victory at Maryland, the Orange bottomed out and lost an opportunity at their first ACC title with a crushing 19-point loss at Virginia last Saturday. A few disturbing themes have sprouted like dandelions of late: The Orange’s only reliable scorers are Fair and Ennis.
In games against Maryland and Virginia, Ennis and Fair connected on 25 of 59 field goals (42.3 percent), while the rest of the team was 19-for-57 from the field, a dreadful 33.3 percent. On Tuesday, it was the C.J. and Tyler Show again with the pair scoring 46 of the Orange’s 62 points.
Boeheim mentioned the need for guard Trevor Cooney to step up. He scored seven points and was 1 of 8 from long range – and the Orange seem to play well whenever he’s dropping jump shots. He scored a combined 26 points against North Carolina State, Boston College, Duke, and Maryland before dropping 12 against Virginia.
“I’m getting good shots, I’m getting the same shots,” Cooney said. “Honestly, I don’t know what it is. I just have to keep shooting. I was fortunate enough to not really go into a slump early in the season and now you put a couple of games together where you don’t shoot it as well or shoot as well you normally do … you just have to shoot your way out of it.”
The problem is even more pronounced because of the absence of sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who missed Tuesday’s game with a back injury. Grant, long, active and athletic, provides the Orange with an additional scorer – and length in the 2-3 zone – but he tweaked his back in the Duke loss. He didn’t play in the second half against Maryland or Virginia. “We miss him a lot, it’s a big blow to any team when you’re missing a starter, especially a player like that,” Fair said. “It’s a big blow to us.”
Freshman Tyler Roberson started in place of Grant, who is day-to-day, against Tech and chipped in just two points and three rebounds in 23 minutes. Roberson, however, is green having played only 130 minutes coming into Tuesday’s game. “We’re a team that needs all of our parts. When we have all of our parts, I think we’re a very good basketball team,” Boeheim said. “Without all our parts, I don’t think we are.”