HARTFORD, Conn. -- The relief in the Syracuse locker room was palpable.
Syracuse had gone two weeks without a win. Two weeks. In the Big East that can seem like an entire season.
“We just found out that it’s not fun and it can happen to somebody good,’’ said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “You play a bad game and if it’s somebody good then you get beat. You go on the road for three games and one is against a top-five team in the country [actually top-seven] and that’s the one we can beat? It’s very difficult.’’
Syracuse snapped its four-game losing streak and avoided Boeheim’s first-ever five-game slide by beating Connecticut 66-58 Wednesday night at the XL Center. The game wasn’t played all that well, with clanking of the rim a common sound. Syracuse didn’t score for the first few minutes and Connecticut went through its own droughts.
And one-time Big East and national player of the year favorite Kemba Walker looked pedestrian in scoring a season-low eight points, making just 3 of 14 shots, 1-of-6 on 3s. Over his past four games, Walker is 21-of-70 (30 percent) from the field and 4-of-26 (15 percent) from beyond the arc.
Had it not been for freshmen Jeremy Lamb’s 22 points, Syracuse would have won in a rout. And the Orange didn’t exactly tear up the stat sheet, either.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Syracuse has been off for two weeks now. The Orange slid from 18-0 and being one of the Big East favorites to a 5-4 record and down to eighth in the conference despite being ranked No. 17.
To say the Cuse needed this win after losing at Pitt (without Kris Joseph, who had a head injury), at home to Villanova and Seton Hall (gasp) and then at Marquette, was an understatement. With a road game at South Florida next (although the game is at the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which should provide more seats for the snowbird Syracuse fans), the Orange were in danger of sliding into the lower third of the Big East.
Georgetown started off 1-4 in the conference, but has righted itself with wins over St. John’s and at Villanova and now the Hoyas are suddenly 6-4 and tied with Syracuse. The Big East is unforgiving this and any recent year. Lose one or two and the team can go through an avalanche of losses quickly (see Notre Dame and Georgetown recently). Win a few and suddenly a team looks ready for a top-four NCAA tournament seed.
“It’s hard to just keep beating each other up,’’ Boeheim said.
But the Orange, who hadn't won in Connecticut since 1999, were a different club in the second half than in recent games. Syracuse learned how to play with a lead, snuff out a rally and the defense and rebounding was tighter than it has been. Connecticut failed to penetrate the zone effectively, Walker was lost and the inside game of the Huskies was a non-factor unless they were out on the break. Syracuse outscored UConn 40-22 in the paint.
“We just played together as a team and our big guys rebounded,’’ SU guard Brandon Triche said. “Lamb went off a little bit but we were able to lock down Kemba.’’
Triche scored well, making seven shots and finishing with a team-high 16 points. Rick Jackson went back to being a double-double player with 13 and 13 and ended the first half by schooling UConn’s Charles Okwandu that had UConn’s Jim Calhoun irate at his defense. Kris Joseph got into double figures (11 points) but didn’t shoot well at 3-of-11. Scoop Jardine was off as well, making just 2 of 11 shots. Boeheim is getting contributions from freshmen C.J. Fair (six and four) and Dion Waiters (nine points), but nothing out of Fab Melo, who was useless in three minutes. Boeheim didn’t bother to put him back in the game.
So this team is hardly infallible just because it knocked off Connecticut. There are still plenty of issues. But give the Orange credit for gutting out a road win to stop the bleeding.
“Not winning for two weeks was tough,’’ Jackson said. “We just had to stay with it. We’ve got to start better. I can’t pinpoint why we don’t. But getting this win puts us back on track. We’ve got to play hard on defense and when we do run our sets, slow it down, defend and we’ll be fine.’’
Now the focus is making sure South Florida isn’t taken lightly. Syracuse can’t afford to dismiss anyone.
The Orange get Georgetown and West Virginia at home in two of the final remaining home games (the other two are Rutgers and DePaul). But road games to Louisville, Villanova and Georgetown await after the trip to USF. There will be likely more losses. No one in the Big East is immune from a skid, maybe not even Pitt, which is the only team with one loss.
“Pittsburgh barely won at Rutgers and barely won at Providence,’’ Boeheim said. “It’s very difficult out there. Even Pitt will get beat two or three games. Everybody else is going to have a bunch of losses. I don’t see any other way right now.’’