Closer Look: Syracuse 57, Cincinnati 55

A breakdown of Syracuse’s 57-55 win at home over Cincinnati:

Overview: This started out as a sloppy Monday afternoon game. Both teams were coming off exhausting weekend victories. On Saturday, Syracuse defeated then-No. 1 Louisville in the final minute on the road, and Cincinnati topped Marquette without Cashmere Wright, who had suffered a knee injury.

They both struggled early in a sloppy first half of college basketball. How bad was it? At one point in the first half, Cincinnati was shooting 17 percent from the field, yet it was down by only five points.

The Bearcats settled for 3s against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone (4-for-18 in the first half). But the Orange's offense wasn’t much better (3-for-10 from the 3-point line).

It wasn’t, however, as though either team lacked effort. It was just a defensive battle. Syracuse’s length wouldn’t give Cincy much room. Cincy cut off the hose to Cuse’s offense by swarming its guards early.

Turning point: In the second half, both teams played much better. Sean Kilpatrick moved Cincy ahead with an early push. He’d started 3-for-10. That was one of the main reasons Cincy’s offense stalled in the first half. After halftime, however, Kilpatrick and the Bearcats were more patient with their passing and penetration. They shifted the Syracuse zone and found better shots. The result? A 12-2 run at the start of the half that gave Cincy a 30-24 lead. The Bearcats led 36-29 minutes later ... And then the shots stopped falling and Syracuse scored seven unanswered points to tie the game at 36 with 11:40 to go. The Orange bounced back from another seven-point deficit (49-42) and tied the game at 55 on Michael Carter-Williams’ 3-pointer with 1:11 to go.

Syracuse had the momentum, and C.J. Fair tipped in Jerami Grant’s miss with 22 seconds to go, giving the Orange a 57-55 lead. Wright missed an off-balance 3-pointer on the other end. Cincy missed another desperation shot at the buzzer. Game. Set. Match. Syracuse. “That wasn’t me, that was them,” Jim Boeheim told ESPN’s Jay Bilas after the game.

Why Syracuse won: Syracuse won with its relentless defense and dynamic guard play. It fought through multiple deficits in the second half until the Orange was even with Cincy in the final minutes. Then, they turned to their star guards: Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche.

Why Cincinnati lost: The Bearcats were quite inefficient on offense early. But their defense (10th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings) held strong and helped them avoid a sizable halftime deficit. In the end, however, they couldn’t get to the bucket and they continued to settle for tough field goals that wouldn’t fall. Offensive struggles doomed Cincy again.

Star(s) of the game: Kilpatrick had 36 points in Saturday’s 71-69 overtime victory against Marquette. He carried the Bearcats again Monday with 21 points. Carter-Williams hit big shots down the stretch for Syracuse. He recorded 16 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and a steal.

Stat of the game: Cincy shot 18 for 55 from the field (33 percent).

What it means for Cincy: It means that the Bearcats can compete with the Big East’s best and contend for the league crown if they can get more offense from players not named Kilpatrick and Wright. Their limited inside presence will always put them at a disadvantage against bigger squads.

What it means for Syracuse: It means the Orange are going to be a handful for any team in the Big East and nationally. Syracuse's combination of length, athleticism and elite defense will cause many headaches for opponents the rest of the way. Boeheim’s squad can play with any team in America, if that wasn’t already clear when it beat Louisville on the road Saturday.

What’s next: Syracuse will play at Villanova Saturday. Cincy will face Rutgers at home Jan. 30.