SU survives scare against N.C. State

C.J. Fair scored with seconds left on the clock to push the Orange past the Wolfpack in one of Syracuse's worst games of the season.

Syracuse has shown a flair for the dramatic this week, finding the most exhilarating ways to close out games. After Tyler Ennis’ buzzer beater downed Pittsburgh Wednesday, the Orange pulled off a miraculous win again, this time winning 56-55 over North Carolina State (16-9, 6-6 ACC).

Rakeem Christmas was the unlikely hero for No. 1 Syracuse (25-0, 12-0 ACC), nearly recording a triple-double with 12 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks. Jerami Grant added his own double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Photo: Chris Janjic
Jerami Grant (#3), Rakeem Christmas (#25) and C.J. Fair (#5) attempt to block NC State from making a basket.

“I thought he was really the difference in the game. All those free throws he took and made were crucial,” coach Jim Boeheim said of Christmas, who hit all six of his free throws.

Christmas did a good job of defending inside without getting out of control. With Baye Moussa Keita out for a second consecutive game after spraining his right knee against Clemson, it was important for Christmas to stay on the court. While he did commit three fouls, he was able to play 35 minutes and prevent the Orange from being exposed.

The junior forward’s breakout performance almost wasn’t enough though, as Syracuse found itself down in the final minute due to poor discipline and execution. Heading into the game the Orange had shot 78.9 percent on free throws in the final five minutes or overtime. But they left points on the board Saturday night, shooting just 4-of-8 from the line in the final five minutes.

“It looked like this was going to be the first game where we made bad plays down the stretch,” Boeheim said. “Jerami (Grant), Tyler (Ennis) and C.J. (Fair) missed free throws that we’ve been making down the stretch.”

Then, with 1:02 to play and the game tied at 53, Tyler Ennis fouled Ralston Turner on a three-point shot. Turner hit all three free throws to the Wolfpack ahead. After Fair hit a free throw to bring the Orange to within one, Ennis made another error, committing an offensive foul as he tried to drive into the paint. He finished nine points and five assists, but also had four turnovers and four fouls.

“Tyler’s made nothing but good plays,” Boeheim said of his point guard up to this point in the season. “And he made a couple bad ones tonight, which is really what you expect a freshman to do. He hasn’t done that.”

However, it still wasn’t enough for Syracuse to drop its first game of the season. Like he did all game, Christmas made the key play. He stole Anthony Barber’s pass off a corner trap and threw an outlet pass to Ennis.

Instead of pulling up to hit his own shot as he did against Pitt, Ennis pushed the ball down the court to Fair, who laid in the winning points with 12 seconds to play. T.J. Warren, who leads the ACC in scoring and had a game-high 23 points, missed a potential game-winner in the final second.

“We keep our composure all the time, we don’t let things get to us,” Christmas said. “We just want to go out and play our defense and see what happens from there.”

Boeheim trusted Christmas and his teammates to play their defense, and opted to defend instead of foul in the final seconds.

“I think these guys deserve a lot of credit,” Boeheim said of his players. “It would’ve been easy to just foul the ball in bounds right away. They made a trap, they got the trap, and they got the steal.”

Boeheim’s decision to not foul, Trevor Cooney said, was important because it allowed the Orange to make a play instead of leaving the outcome up to N.C. State’s free throw shooting.

“He was confident in our ability to be aggressive on defense and get out and get traps and force them to make tough decisions,” Cooney said of Boeheim.

But on the other end of the court, though, Boeheim wasn’t as confident in his team.

“We’re not playing well enough right now offensively,” Boeheim said. “We need to get better on that end.”

Syracuse shot 35.2 percent from the field, hitting 19-of-54 field goals. Ennis attributed the team’s struggles to the Wolfpack’s preparation.

“They did a good job of scouting us and knowing what we were trying to do,” he said.

Boeheim also pointed out the tough stretch the Orange has gone through recently, playing three games in the past week. Fair in particular looked a bit sluggish, Boeheim said.

“He couldn’t get his legs under him on his jump shot,” Boeheim said of Fair, who shot 5-of-16 from the field.

Syracuse won’t have much time to rest, as it plays again Wednesday at home against Boston College.

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