Men's basketball: Orange offense goes cold in loss to Virginia

Rakeem Christmas struggled in his final home game at SU against the top-ranked Cavalier defense.

Syracuse started strong defensively in Monday’s matchup with No. 2 Virginia, but it was the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season-champion Cavaliers that eventually dominated both ends en route to a 59-47 victory on Syracuse’s senior night at the Carrier Dome.

With the win, the Cavaliers clinched their second-straight ACC regular-season title, becoming the first program other than Duke or North Carolina to do so since North Carolina State in 1974.

Photo: Alexandra Hootnick
Rakeem Christmas, 25, shoots a basket during the Syracuse Orange's last home game of the season. Syracuse lost 59-47 and what was Christmas's last game in the Carrier Dome.

It wasn’t pretty though. In the first 14 minutes of action, the Cavs turned the ball over 10 times. During that span, Syracuse raced out to a 13-2 lead while Virginia seemingly couldn’t buy a basket. The Orange could have had a bigger lead, but failed to capitalize on a few open shots.

“There’s a reason they have just lost one game,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think they can beat just about anybody. If we had rebounded it would have been a different game. It still would have been a difficult game.”

After those 14 minutes, things changed dramatically for Virginia (28-1, 16-1 ACC). In the final five minutes of the half, the Cavs turned a 15-5 deficit into a 23-20 lead behind big buckets from guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes. Perrantes capped the run with a running layup high off the glass over Rakeem Christmas just before the half.

The second half started out much the same way, as the Cavs reeled off a 17-7 run behind 3-pointers from Brogdon and forward Evan Nolte and a strong inside presence by forward Anthony Gill and center Mike Tobey.

As shots started falling with relative ease, the Cavs’ vaunted defense turned up the heat, applying quick double-teams to Christmas as soon as he caught the ball in the post. The SU senior scored only 2 points in his final half of basketball at the Carrier Dome.

As Christmas looked for help, the Orange continued to clang threes off of the rim, finishing just 4-for-19 from beyond the arc. Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije finished a combined 3-of-14.

“They had two guys on him all night and I thought he did a pretty good job,” Boeheim said. “In the second half they put more pressure on him. We just didn’t have another alternative. When they are doing that, we are going to get looks at the three-point line. If they are going to put that much attention on Rak, then we need to make some of those threes.”

With threes not falling, the Orange needed to grab offensive boards for second-chance opportunities. That didn’t happen, as the Cavs outrebounded the Orange 42-20, including a 16-6 advantage on the offensive glass.

The Orange (18-12, 9-8 ACC) pulled as close as 10 points following a Tyler Roberson jumper, but the Cavs shut down Syracuse the rest of the way. With 18 wins and only one game remaining, SU will fail to win 20 games for the first time since 1997.

“I think the biggest difference in the ball game is that they got us inside on the boards, and I just don’t think we competed on the backboards like we have all year,” Boeheim said.

Before the game, Christmas and transfer guard Carter Sanderson were honored in a ceremony on the court as SU’s only senior members.

“To realize this was my last game, that’s when it really hit me,” Christmas said. "It was a great feeling to come in here and do what I did. Finish school in three years and put in so much work this season.''

Christmas struggled during his final home game, finishing with just 10 points and four rebounds, well below his averages of 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.

But that’s not what his head coach will remember.

“He has had a great career and has always done everything he has been asked to do,” Boeheim said. “He has battled for 40 minutes just about every game just to give us a chance to win. We have no other inside-threat presence of any kind. Rakeem has had to do an unbelievable amount of work.”

Cooney, a member of the same recruiting class as Christmas, reflected on the time he has spent with his teammate.

“I’ve known Rak a really long time, even before we came here…so it’s a special bond we have together,” Cooney said. “I’m glad I was able to share four years with him here and play with him. He’s a great kid and a great guy. He’s a hard worker, and that’s all you can take from him.

“His numbers just kept getting better every year, and his numbers just took off this year.”

Christmas and Syracuse will travel to Greensboro, N.C. to take on NC State this Saturday at noon.

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