Syracuse survives St.John's and storms towards Big East semifinals

Orange overcome shaky first half and top Red Storm, 79-73. Syracuse will play UConn Friday for a spot in Big East title game.

The fourth seed Syracuse Orange, fueled by big second half performances by guards Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, shook off pesky fifth seed St. John’s late, starting their Big East Tournament schedule on the right foot with a 79-73 win at Madison Square Garden.

Despite a sluggish first half that was riddled with turnovers, Triche and Jardine led the Orange (26-6) back from a five-point halftime deficit by scoring early and often. Triche (22 points) opened the second half with a deep 3-point shot to bring the Orange within two, and Jardine (10 points) scored five straight to give Syracuse a 41-38 lead. For the rest of the game Syracuse held a consistent three or four point lead and would not face a deficit larger than one point.

Photo: Zach Ornitz
Kris Joseph dropped in 14 points Thursday against the Red Storm and nearly had a "Sportscenter Top 10" moment with this dunk attempt in the second half.

“You’re going to have games just like today, that’s the way it’s going to be in the tournament,” said Triche. “If you don’t play at a high level in the first game you play you’ll get beat.”

After defeating St. John’s (21-11) on their home court, the Orange now moves on to the semifinals, where UConn awaits after defeating top seed Pittsburgh at the buzzer.

“I thought it was a great game,” said head coach Jim Boeheim. “First half we got a little stationery against their defense and made some bad turnovers, 12 times in the first half, three in the second half and that’s the difference between scoring 32 and scoring 47.”

Freshman Fab Melo, coming off his best game of the season versus DePaul, put together an even more impressive performance in his first Big East Tournament game. The center finished with 12 points, 2 blocks and 4 rebounds while constantly clogging up lanes to the basket. He also scored the biggest points of the afternoon, hitting a reverse layup with 32 seconds left to give the Orange a 74-70 lead to essentially put the game on ice.

"It feels great, it’s good for the whole team,” said Melo, who has struggled at points this season. “People had expectations for me, and so did I. I know the talents I have. I never lost my confidence.”

Melo also sparked the team early, coming in after Jardine picked up two fouls within the first two minutes of the game. Upon entering he immediately slammed home a dunk on a pass from Rick Jackson to wake up the Syracuse fans who had trekked to New York City. The freshman followed that up with two blocks, and then lured St. John’s Justin Burrell into an offensive foul to keep the Red Storm off the board.

“He played great,” said Triche. “I told him this is a taste of next year. He’s going to get better and better.”

Jackson, who finished with 10 points, scored on two dunks in crunch time to keep Syracuse on top. After St. John’s took a 67-66 lead, he grabbed a pass from Melo and slammed the ball through the hoop to give the Orange a 68-67 lead with 3:41 to go. Syracuse never trailed again.

Forward Kris Joseph also put late pressure on St. John’s by scoring on a drive to the basket with 1:16 left to give SU a two-score lead. Joseph would finish with 14 points on the afternoon.

The Orange played poorly on offense for most of the first half. Syracuse shot a paltry 10-27 on field goals and only 9-14 on free throws, something that would need to drastically improve in the second half if they wanted to stay in the game. And they did improve, shooting 16-32 on field goals while making 11-15 free throws. St. John's senior D.J. Kennedy  went down with a knee injury within the first five minutes of the game as well, allowing Syracuse to hang with the undermanned Red Storm despite their shooting woes.

It’s wasn’t just the poor shot selection that put ‘Cuse behind at halftime. The Orange trailed 37-32 due to sloppy play and needless turnovers. Things started to deteriorate after Jackson, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, left to rest midway through the half. What followed was a flurry of breakdowns and mistakes – C.J. Fair missed two separate shots under the basket, Triche fired a pass out of bounds at midcourt and Jardine launched a 3-point shot that didn’t come close to the hoop.

It wasted an impressive early defensive effort. SU led St. Johns in blocks 7-0 at halftime, but also led in turnovers, 12-8.

Though St. John’s missed a number of free throws to keep Syracuse within one score, they finally opened up with under two minutes remaining in the half. St. John’s Malik Boothe hit Burrell for an acrobatic alley-op to open up a three-point lead. After SU’s Dion Waiters followed with a 3-point shot of his own to tie the game, Triche fouled Malik Stith as he was sinking a layup, giving him an extra free throw to pad the St. John’s lead.

But a strong second half pulled Syracuse back, and now they have UConn to look forward to next.

“If we play like that, we’ll be tough to stop,” said Waiters.

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