PITTSBURGH -- Quick thoughts on Syracuse’s 72-65 win over UNC Asheville in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Overview: Let’s address the obvious first: This had nothing to do with Fab Melo.
Yes, the loss of the big man alters the way Syracuse plays, especially defensively, but not this much.
Syracuse needed to salvage a second-round win against 16th-seeded UNC Asheville because it debuted in the NCAA tournament as if it wanted to be anywhere but on the court. The Orange looked disinterested and dysfunctional from the opening tip, allowing the Bulldogs to start believing a miracle was possible.
That it wasn’t meant to be doesn’t change that a fragile team needs to quickly refocus. Otherwise, the curtain will close quickly for the Orange.
The lone saving grace for Syracuse was its defense. With Rakeem Christmas logging most of the second-half minutes, the Orange were able to extend their zone on the hot-shooting Bulldogs and ultimately hold them at bay.
Turning point: There were about 30 in this game, but the most critical was when referee Ed Corbett signaled an out-of-bounds call off UNC Asheville with less than a minute to play, sending Scoop Jardine to the line. Replays showed the call was, at best, questionable. The senior sunk both free throws and Brandon Triche followed with two more, giving the Orange the win in a game they desperately tried to lose.
Key player: His teammates ought to be slapping James Southerland on the back. He came off the bench to basically save the Orange in the second half. Southerland had just two points at the break but finished with 15, including five in the Orange’s game-deciding 8-0 run.
Key stat: This isn’t in the good department. This is in the must-fix department. Jim Boeheim said Wednesday that his seniors needed to play better than they did in New York. They didn’t. Kris Joseph and Jardine were a combined 6-of-18 from the floor and 1-of-9 from behind the arc. The two were only part of the shooting problem. Syracuse, despite the win, shot just 5-of-23 from behind the arc.
Miscellaneous: In his pregame presser, Jim Boeheim admitted that he used to play UNC Asheville in the regular season but has avoided scheduling the Bulldogs of late because “Eddie might come in and eat us," referring to Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach. … Sans Melo, Syracuse went more with the freshman Christmas than with Baye Keita. Not as active as Keita, Christmas is bigger and bulkier, a little more similar to Melo than Keita, which allows Syracuse to extend its zone as it has all season. … Asheville sub Keith Hornsby is the son of musician Bruce. Irrelevant but entertaining fact.
What’s next: Top-seeded Syracuse meets No. 8 seed Kansas State in the third round on Saturday.