Men's basketball: Syracuse defense stymies Kennesaw State in opening victory

An explosive fast-break attack helps the Orange overcome another slow shooting performance.

When the shots simply weren’t falling, No. 23 Syracuse turned to its signature 2-3 zone for the spark it needed in a 89-42 thumping of Kennesaw State Friday night at the Carrier Dome. 

With only four buckets in 18 attempts from the field, SU struggled to get its wheels turning in the first 10 minutes, allowing the Owls to stick around early.

But as turnover followed turnover, a stout Orange defense paved the way for numerous fast-break opportunities that, before long, built a huge lead and got the offense humming on all cylinders. 

“A big key tonight was our defense,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. “When we’re playing bad on offense, like in the first half, our defense is good enough to hold us in it.” 

Chris McCullough had a double-double in his collegiate debut with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while sophomore B.J. Johnson offered 19 points to go along with eight rebounds off the bench. The pair more than replaced the production of Michael Gbinije, who was scratched from the game for undisclosed reasons. 

“He got some open looks [and] made a couple good plays early,” said Boeheim regarding Johnson. “He had a nice game. I thought he was good tonight.” 

Senior Rakeem Christmas led all scorers and set a new career-high with 21 points to go along with nine boards, taking full advantage of a small Kennesaw State frontcourt and punishing the big men down low. 

“The first half was very slow, and [in] the second half I just tried to get my position,” Christmas said. “Working my little hooks and trying to draw fouls… just being assertive.” 

While the offense may have stalled at the start, it ran relatively smooth the rest of the game. 

Despite having as many points as turnovers (four), freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph pushed the ball up the court after seemingly every rebound. He displayed great court vision, connecting with a slicing Chris McCullough on one occasion for a thunderous slam midway through the first half. 

It was one of Joseph’s six assists on the night. 

“That’s what coach wants me to do,” Joseph said. “As soon as I get it off a rebound, I get the ball and try to push it.” 

With a squad that Boeheim believes is a much better rebounding team than in years’ past, the ability to create fast-break points off rebounds and turnovers could prove critical for Syracuse’s success this season. 

“The defense is huge,” Joseph said, echoing the words of his coach. “If we’re not hitting shots, we can always manage to be in games just because our defense creates so many stops for us.” 

When his teammates are hitting shots, though, he believes the Orange is a force to be reckoned with. 

Said Joseph: “I think with this team especially, we have threats all over the court. And when we’re all making shots, we’re gonna be real hard to beat.”

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