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College basketball: Nice return for slick shooting Southerland

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SYRACUSE — When the Carrier Dome crowd of 27,169 rose as one to give James Southerland a standing ovation just for entering the game in the first half against St. John’s Sunday, the Syracuse senior forward knew he was back.

Back in the good graces of the university after winning his appeal of what turned out to be a six-game suspension for undisclosed academic reasons.

And back in Jim Boeheim’s rotation as a key cog in what the Orange hope will be a strong end of the season push. Southerland scored 13 points in 26 productive minutes off the Orange bench during in a 77-58 Big East Conference victory.

“It’s good to be back with the guys and especially helping us win,’’ Southerland said among a swarm of media in the SU locker room afterward. “I want to thank all the fans for their well wishes and my teammates and coaches for their continued support.’’

After a university academic hearing panel upheld Southerland’s appeal to have his eligibility restored, he suited up for the first time since the Providence game on Jan. 9.

Southerland, who was initially declared ineligible just hours before SU’s game against Villanova on Jan. 12, had his appeals hearing on Friday afternoon.

Syracuse went 4-2 without Southerland, who was SU’s second-leading scorer at 13.6 points per game at the time of his suspension.

Southerland said he “never lost faith that he would be back because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong. ’’

He and SU coach Jim Boeheim wouldn’t discuss details of the suspension. Southerland said he “tried to remain upbeat the keep on working hard in practice. It was tough to miss six games, but life isn’t always fair I guess.’’

Southerland entered the game with 13:16 left in the first half. He missed his first shot, a 15-foot baseline jumper. But he did make two free throws and grabbed two rebounds in nine minutes of action.

“I didn’t think I would be nervous, but that first shot showed I was because I just was pumped up,’’ Southerland said. “After I made the free throws, I calmed down.’’

Southerland re-entered the game with just under 17 minutes left in the second half. On his first touch this time, he drained a 3-pointer from the corner.

“It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,’’ he said. “That’s when I knew I was back in rhythm.’’

Southerland then finished off a run-out with a thundering dunk on a pass from Michael Carter-Williams.

And after St. John’s had drawn within nine points midway through the half, Southerland had a strong two-minute stretch that helped put the win away.

He was a part of a three-way fast break that started with a Carter-Williams long outlet pass to Southerland, who spun in mid-air, hitting a sprinting Brandon Triche for a two-handed dunk.

“I actually saw Brandon coming really fast, and I didn’t know if I could turn around quick enough to get him the ball,’’ Southerland said.

Boeheim then ran a set play for Southerland coming off a wing pick. He drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and repeated that play 30 seconds later on an identical set.

“That’s what James can do for us,’’ Triche said. “He’s going to get Michael and me a few more assists a game, and really help stretch defenses out.’’

Boeheim said he was “totally surprised’’ how much Southerland contributed. “Games are so much different that practice, and there’s no way to figure out if the transition will be that easy. But James has been working hard and was determined to come back and help us.’’

Boeheim said he would continue to bring Southerland off the bench, and start freshman Jerami Grant at small forward.

“Jerami has done great things to help us through this stretch,’’ he said. “But James is so experienced, he’s going to be on the court a lot.’’

Triche, one of Southerland’s best friends, said he pestered his buddy “about 50 times’’ during practice Saturday night to determine if he had heard anything about the appeal.

“Finally, he did a big dunk and said, ‘Watch that tomorrow.’’ That’s when I knew he was coming back.’ ’’ Triche said.

Southerland said he found out positively he could play early Sunday morning. “I haven’t stopped smiling since,’’ he said.

On the matter, Boeheim said, “It just took some time. That’s the way the system works. You have to go through the process and just hope things work out. James maintained a great attitude and is to be commended for his leadership.’’

“I’m just going to try to be a difference-maker again,’’ Southerland said. “Sometimes, adversity makes you strong. I think this has helped me realize how special it is to be a part of this team.’’

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