Syracuse, N.Y. — If you imagined Jim Boeheim lighting into players at halftime and screaming some life into a Syracuse men’s basketball team that was in desperately in need of energy, think again. If you pictured Elijah Hughes providing the ultimate example of his growing leadership, inspiring his teammates to fight on with an eloquent speech, keep dreaming.
That’s not how Syracuse basketball roared back from three consecutive crushing losses and an 11-point halftime deficit against Georgia Tech, earning an inspiring 79-72 win in the Carrier Dome.
That’s probably a good thing. Instead, the inspiration came in a way that was much more true to Syracuse basketball and, the Orange can hope, much more repeatable.
“Heads up, let’s go out and win,” Hughes said of the locker room conversation. “It’s pretty simple.”
“They listened,” Boeheim said. “They weren’t crying. They just have to compete. Bourama (Sidibe) you have to compete. Marek (Dolezaj) you have to stay out of foul trouble. We had a couple of sets we wanted to run and we got them right away.”
From the outside, it certainly felt like it might have taken something a little more epic than that to inspire Saturday’s comeback.
The Orange had lost three consecutive games. The first were body blows to the team’s NCAA Tournament chances, badly-needed victories that eluded Syracuse in the final, exhausting, moments. The third defeat felt like a knockout blow against nationally-ranked Louisville, a blowout when an under-gunned team that played hard all season might have finally run out of resolve.
When the Orange responded to those three losses by making just seven shots in the first half and falling behind a middle-of-the-pack ACC opponent by 11, it felt like the season might have been heading off the rails.
“We can breathe,” Hughes said afterward, a short look at how a fourth consecutive losses might have challenged the Orange mentally.
Still, Syracuse players insist that it did not take anything special to pull the season back from the brink. After all, this is what Syracuse players practice. If there has been an individual trademark of Syracuse men’s basketball over the last handful years, it’s been its stubborn ability to never surrender, even when things haven’t gone perfectly.
“I’m always confident in the guys,” Joe Girard said III. “Always confident in each other. … We haven’t quit all year. We’re always in close games. We don’t quit. We had one game that wasn’t. We’re in close games. We have to figure out how to win them. Tonight we did.”
So Syracuse players spent halftime supporting each other. They encouraged each other. They preached positive thinking and made subtle changes. They offered reminders to focus on the things they’d talked about the previous two days in practice.
“I was talking to some of the guys,” Hughes said. “Told Buddy he was going to get hot. Told Joe he had to get going, he got going. Marek, he didn’t play in the first half much because of foul trouble, he got going.”
It was a lesson, perhaps, that success almost always lies more in every-day habits more than exceptional moments and that calm is almost always better than crazed.
The Orange opened the second half by making it a close game again, playing with more energy and immediately going on a 7-0 run. Girard scored the first five. The comeback felt real. The success spawned energy. That energy inspired the crowd. It all built on itself.
The result was a Syracuse team that looked spent for the first 20 minutes, out-classed its competition over the next 20. The Orange came into the day tied with Georgia Tech in the ACC standings, then won the second half against its peer by 18 points.
The success came largely by keeping it simple. The Orange used its starting five for all but 1 minute and 59 seconds, and only then because Sidibe fouled out.
Dolezaj got his offense going against an opposing big man who couldn’t match his agility. Buddy Boeheim contributed by getting into the lane again against a small player. Sidibe grabbed 10 rebounds against an ACC opponent for the first time this year. Hughes, the ACC’s leading scorer with an average of 18.5 points, scored his customary 20.
During a game in which the Orange could have checked out for the season, Syracuse poured in 64 percent of its shots, its best performance in a half the entire year.
“At halftime this was a really hard game to win, really hard game to win,” Boeheim said. “After you’ve lost three in a row it’s hard. I thought the players went out there and just played. It’s a tremendous tribute to those five guys.”
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