Syracuse escapes with No. 1 hopes intact

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Asking Jim Boeheim to describe Wes Johnson's dunk in the second-half of Syracuse's nail-biting 59-57 win over DePaul Saturday is a little like asking a fisherman to describe the ocean. Where do you start?

"It tied the game," Boeheim said, deadpan. "So yeah, it was big."

The dunk wasn't just important -- although it did give Syracuse its first tie with the scrappy Blue Demons, who had led the entire game to that point -- it was immense in its beauty, limitless in its execution. Johnson took off from the wing and glided to the rim in the way so few players can, and just when it looked like a DePaul defender might get a hand in Johnson's path, the Syracuse forward lifted another notch, extended his arm, and slammed the ball through the rim.

So, yeah. It was big.

But Boeheim's right: The dunk will be remembered for the way it finally pulled Syracuse even with a DePaul team that had seemed to discover the the anti-Orange formula. The Blue Demons built an early 33-15 lead with hot shooting and then went into preservation mode, slowing the game down to a crawl and picking offensive spots carefully.

That strategy managed to keep a very cold Syracuse team at bay. The Cuse were 24-for-57 from the field, good for 42.1 percent, a percentage that wasn't helped by the mere nine offensive rebounds.

"Usually we rebound some of that stuff a little bit better," Boeheim said. "Usually we make more shots. But you know you're going to have games like this on the road where you need to gut it out, and we did that."

Boeheim and company almost didn't: Even after a furious Syracuse comeback, and with no timeouts in the last seven minutes, DePaul hung tough, chipping Syracuse's late lead down to two and setting itself for a final shot. That shot went to senior Will Walker, whose hot shooting (5-for-12 from 3) buoyed DePaul early. Walker had a wide-open look on a high screen and roll, but the ball didn't fall, and DePaul couldn't get a shot up before the final buzzer sounded.

It was, to put it lightly, a disappointing loss for DePaul and interim head coach Tracy Webster. Webster deserves some credit for a gameplan -- slow the game down, find open spots in the zone, guard Andy Rautins closely and hope Syracuse misses a few shots -- that countered Syracuse's zone perfectly. The Demons burned through timeouts far too quickly (DePaul had no answer for Syracuse's traps, hence the frequent timeouts). Overall, though, it was an impressive tactical display by Webster, who has his team playing its best basketball of the season.

The more interesting takeaway is what this says about Syracuse. The Orange coasted against a lesser opponent Saturday, and instead of storming back and taking control after the half, let that opponent stick around and narrowly miss a drastic upset. That happens to every team, but in a weekend where Cuse is competing with Kansas, Villanova, and several others for a spot atop Monday's AP poll, it was a discouraging performance.

"DePaul came out and was aggressive and really showed tremendous effort," Boeheim said. "And we didn't do that. We played about two good minutes of basketball. Usually, when you do that, you lose."

The Cuse didn't lose Saturday. They can thank Wes Johnson's transcendent hops, Arinze Onuaku's girth, and a dash of good luck for that. It was enough today. For a while, though, all the way up to and even after Johnson's game-tying dunk, a loss was more than possible.

So, yeah, it was big. Next time, though, the Cuse will have to be even bigger.