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Pitoniak: SU battles back vs. Cincy

It wasn't pretty, but it was gritty, and it was a great bounce-back from that lackluster performance against Notre Dame Saturday night in South Bend. Monday's 60-53 victory against a tenacious Cincinnati Bearcats team in a very hostile environment got Syracuse back on track as it attempts to rebound from the loss of center Fab Melo for who knows how long.

                Unlike the game against the Irish, the Orange men showed some fight after being pinned agasint the ropes early on. Credit Kris Joseph (17 points, 6 rebounds), Scoop Jardine (13 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers) and Brandon Triche (11 points, 4 steals, 3 rebounds) for leading the way - as upperclassmen should - during crunch time. The senior trio scored the final 20 points as the third-ranked Orange improved to 21-1 and enabled Jim Boeheim to move into fourth place on the all-time victory list with win No. 877.

                Equally impressive was the play of freshman Rakeem Christmas, who's been asked to switch from forward to center and acquitted himself quite well with four points, nine rebounds and three blocks vs. the Bearcats. At 6-foot-9, 222 pounds, Christmas doesn't have the bulk to bang with most centers, but he is an extremely quick athlete with long arms. And he appears to be the best option right now during these desperate times without Melo, the 7-foot, shot-blocker from Brazil who is out indefinitely for undisclosed reasons.

Baye Moussa Keita was supposed to be the second option at center, but the 6-foot-11 sophomore stringbean has regressed this season, particularly on offense where he's suffered from Roberto Duran (Hands of Stone) Disease.

That's prompted Boeheim to use Christmas to fill the void, at least temporarily, and the freshman from Philly finally showed us why he was a McDonald's All-America in high school. The soft-spoken Christmas logged a season-high 27 minutes and finally displayed the crash-the-boards aggression necessary to succeed in the rugged Big East. Look for Boeheim to continue to count on him to log serious minutes at center for as long as Melo is gone.

And look for him to remind forwards C.J. Fair (six rebounds, six points vs. Cincy) and James Southerland (seven boards and two blocks) that they have to continue to crash the boards hard.

The Orange held their own 40-40 on the boards vs. the Bearcats. And they limited Cincy, which sprinted to a 13-6 lead, to just 29 percent shooting after that red-hot start.

The smothering defense and powerful rebounding were imperative because SU shot just 25 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and just 33 percent (5-for-15) from the free throw line. Terrible numbers, yet they still won by seven. The horrid free throw shooting was especially noticeable down the stretch, when Syracuse converted just 1-of-7. The Cuse, of course, has a history of struggling from the charity stripe, but up until last night, the Orange actually had been among the Big East leaders, converting just under 70 percent of their free throws.

The other troubling aspect of the Big Monday victory was the poor performance by Dion Waiters, who made just one-of-five shots and finished with only two points and two boards in 12 minutes of play.

That's two bad games in a row for the guard who's been SU most explosive offensive player this season. Boeheim gave Waiters an earful a couple of times last night. It seems as if Waiters has started to believe all that hype about him being NBA ready and started focusing on himself rather than the team.

It will be interesting to see how the sophomore responds. He is way too talented to continue slumping, but he can't go out there thinking it's about him. I'd be shocked if he doesn't come back with some strong performances down the stretch.

Speaking of that stretch run, it's going to be quite challenging, especially if Melo continues to be ineligible. SU's final nine regular-season opponents have a combined record of 122-54. The Orange will have six games against Top Twenty teams, including home-and-away meetings with Connecticut and Louisville.  

Without Melo swatting away and altering shots in the back of the 2-3 zone, this team isn't nearly as strong. But the Orange men are still very good, and they can still be a force as long as they're battling for the rebounds and playing defense the way they did against the Bearcats.
            Awarding columnist Scott Pitoniak's has covered Syracuse basketball for 36 years. His 14th book, "Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story" is available at all bookstores as well as amazon.com.
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