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College basketball: Syracuse shows maximum response

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SYRACUSE — For one of the few times this nonconference season, Syracuse stared adversity squarely in the face Saturday.

Trailing long-time rival and fellow unbeaten Villanova by 18 points midway through the first half, its largest deficit of the season, the Orange refused to give in on both ends of the court and produced a comeback for the ages.

Redshirt sophomore Trevor Cooney scored 21 points and his backcourt mate, freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, contributed 20 as No. 2 SU (12-0) used an incredible 26-2 late first-half run to seize the lead and then hit several key free throws down the stretch to post a 78-62 victory in front of a season-high crowd of 28,135 in a raucous Carrier Dome.

In the first nonconference meeting between the Orange and the No. 8 Wildcats (11-1) since the 1981-82 season, it had the feeling of an old-time Big East Conference battle. SU is now a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, while Villanova is a member of the new-look Big East.

“Any time two great teams go at it in this kind of atmosphere, this is the type of game you will get,” said SU coach Jim Boeheim. “Villanova is always very physical and makes it tough to score. You just have to expect that kind of game, and play through it.”

Senior C. J. Fair contributed 17 points for the Orange, which finish off the nonconference portion of its schedule Tuesday at home against Eastern Michigan.

Ennis, who was guarded for portions of the game by older brother Dylan, said, “That kind of comeback shows how much confidence we have in each other. There was no sense of panic or frustration. We knew we had to start getting some defensive stops and turn them into points so we could get the big crowd into it.”

Villanova hit its first four 3-point shots, including three by senior James Bell, and SU had no response in the opening minutes as the Dome fell eerily silent.

The Wildcats put together a 13-1 run and eventually seized a 25-7 lead at the 10:50 mark of the opening half on a Josh Hart jumper.

“They made some really tough shots early and we kind of rushed our offense,” Boeheim said. “Once we got a few stops in a row, and then converted them, the momentum changed quickly.”

Cooney hit his first 3-pointer coming off a screen at the 10:38 mark and added two free throws followed by a Fair follow jam to kick-start the Orange comeback.

A Fair 3-pointer, another Cooney three, a Fair free throw, a Baye Moussa Keita tip-in and two Jerami Grant free throws finished off an 18-0 run and tied the game at 25-all with 5:36 left before halftime.

A sweet Ennis crossover and layup extended the Orange run to 20-0 and gave them its first lead. SU’s active zone defense held Villanova without a point for nearly seven minutes before Dylan Ennis broke the Villanova drought with a short jumper.

“We let Villanova throw the first punch,” said Cooney, who finished 5 of 8 from behind the arc. “But we knew we had to take it and respond. Once the defense kicked into gear, the offense and the crowd fed off that.”

“The way we responded today was tremendous,” Boeheim said. “There was really no indication that we would get it going. We kind of eased into it. Tyler and Cooney picked us up when we were really stuck.”

SU led 38-34 at halftime, and a 9-0 run in the opening few minutes of the second half built the margin to 10 points. But Bell (25 points) hit his fifth 3-pointer of the game and Villanova pulled to within 56-53 with seven minutes left, setting up what looked like another classic finish between two teams that have now played 71 times.

However, Cooney came off the bench to drill a key 3-pointer on SU’s next possession. Fair and Grant converted two free throws each, Ennis added a big layup at the end of a shot clock and Grant scored again as the shot clock wound down on a beautiful dish from Ennis.

SU finished off the victory by making 9 of its final 10 free throws.

“When we were up 18, we should have pressed the issue,” Bell said. “Instead, we let off the gas. We knew they would make some kind of run.”

Boeheim said, “Nothing seems to faze these kids. Tyler is as calm and collected as any freshman I’ve ever seen. And because he plays with such confidence, it just carries over to the other guys on the floor.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright said despite the loss, games like this “will make us a lot better. We knew with the big lead it wasn’t going to be easy because Syracuse is a great team. They have so many weapons and Ennis is so good as a leader and a playmaker.”

The victory also marked SU’s 50th straight nonconference win.

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