A Christmas to remember: SU big man has career night in win over Wake Forest

The senior poured in a career-high 35 points as the Orange continued its hot start in conference play.

With freshman forward Chris McCullough now sidelined for the rest of the season, Syracuse will need to move forward without half of its potent one-two punch inside the paint. 

But on Tuesday night against Wake Forest, the other half proved he’s capable of delivering knockout blows all by himself. 

SU big man Rakeem Christmas scored a career-high 35 points and made six clutch free throws in overtime to carry the Orange to a gutsy 86-83 victory over the Demon Deacons in front of 23,367 fans at the Carrier Dome. That point total is the highest for an SU player since Demetris Nichols scored 37 against St. John’s in 2007. 

Photo: Ghase Guttman
Rakeem Christmas (left) rises above Konstantinos Mitoglou during the Orange's thrilling victory over Wake Forest.

“I think (Christmas) is capable of this. I really do,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think he’s capable of a big game. Teams are playing us man-to-man. I think he’s capable. We’re looking for him.” 

That was apparent from the opening tip, as the senior delivered two thunderous dunks in the first five minutes of play. 

He was aided by Trevor Cooney, whose career-high performance on Sunday carried into this contest. After scoring the Orange’s first five points, Cooney went on to bury four more shots from beyond the arc and finish with 21 points. 

While both Christmas and Cooney came out of the gate on fire, they were upstaged by the remarkable shooting of Wake Forest’s Konstantinos Mitoglou for much of the game. The freshman nailed his first nine shots from the floor, including an off-balance three in the far corner, and helped the Demon Deacons build a nine-point lead with 16 minutes remaining in the second half. 

Luckily for Syracuse (13-4, 4-0 Atlantic Coast), Mitoglou cooled off down the stretch, but he still finished with a team-high 26 points and nearly willed his team to a regulation win. 

“We allowed him to shoot, and you can’t allow guys like that to shoot,” Boeheim said. “We never could adjust from there, and that just got them right back in the game. Now, you know, you’re gonna be in a dogfight.” 

But the latter period and extra session belonged to Christmas. 

After picking up his fourth foul with 5:20 left in regulation, he made three crucial foul shots to help send the game to overtime after misfiring on a number of them earlier in the game. 

Then after SU quickly fell behind once again, he made a pretty hook shot to kickstart the offense.  However, his biggest shots came at the foul line as the Orange desperately clutched a one-point lead in the final minute. 

Six times he stared down the front of the basket, and six times he swished the far net to keep the Demon Deacons (9-9, 1-4 Atlantic Coast) behind for good. 

“You don’t really think about it,” Christmas said. “I’m just out there helping my teammates. I’m going out there, being aggressive, trying to get the ball. 

“We just had to keep our composure, which we did.” 

Syracuse has now opened with four ACC victories for the second-consecutive season and improved its all-time record in overtime games at the Carrier Dome to 21-3. 

Michael Gbinije overcame a sluggish first half to score 17 points and dish out 11 assists, while Kaleb Joseph again struggled and spent the vast majority of the final 25 minutes on the bench. 

Christmas, meanwhile, will likely need to play all 40 minutes on a consistent basis in McCullough’s absence. The senior said he knows that and realizes the rest of his teammates are counting on him in every game. 

His next chance to deliver another gem will be during the Orange’s game against Clemson on Saturday in South Carolina. 

“Rak is a physical beast,” Gbinije said. “Hopefully, he can get a bigger career high, but that’s very nice in today’s age… to come across a big man scoring 35 points.”

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