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SU stumbling down the stretch with 4th loss in 5 games


SYRACUSE — OK, Syracuse fans. It’s officially time to panic over the team’s end-of-the-season meltdown.

‘Cuse nation could deal with road losses at Atlantic Coast Conference powers Duke and Virginia in the past two weeks. But losing to two of the three worst teams in the league, at home no less, is not what they expected after such a spectacular start.

The struggling Orange, looking to build some momentum with the ACC Tournament just a week away, instead gave skeptics more ammunition to dismiss them as it closed out the home season Tuesday night with a frustrating 67-62 conference loss to Georgia Tech.

SU (26-4 overall, 13-4 ACC), which also lost to lowly Boston College in its previous home game, finally made a game of it after trailing by double digits with 5 1/2 minutes to go. But the miracle finishes of January and February seem like an eternity ago as the Orange could neither get key stops on defense nor make key plays on offense when they had a chance to pull this one out.

Georgia Tech senior Trae Golden, who led his team with 16 points, hit six consecutive free throws in the final 35 seconds to help the Yellowjackets (14-16, 5-12) pull off their biggest win of the season.

But it was SU’s inconsistent offense which was the culprit again as Jim Boeheim’s club suffered its fourth loss in the last five games after a 25-0 start.

“For six or seven games, our offense has just not been good enough,’’ Boeheim said . “We’re getting in bigger holes and struggling to make up deficits. I warned everybody that all of those close wins would not continue.’’

Other than C.J. Fair, who tied his career high with 28 points on Senior Night before 26,766 at the Carrier Dome, and freshman Tyler Ennis (18 points), SU’s offense could not stay with Georgia Tech, which had lost four in a row and eight of its past 10.

The shooting woes continued for Orange sophomore guard Trevor Cooney, who was just 1-for-8 from 3-point range and finished with seven points.

And with double-figure scorer and top rebounder Jerami Grant not even dressed while battling back problems, the Orange had no viable third option.

“C.J. and Tyler did all they could to get us back in it because it should have been a 15-point game,’’ Boeheim said. “But without Jerami, it falls on somebody else to pick us up. And right now, that’s a big problem.’’

Said Fair: “I tried to be a little bit more aggressive without Jerami, but I guess it wasn’t enough. The main problem is we let them get way too comfortable the first half, and got in too big a hole to come all the way back.’’

Boeheim was told that Grant, who played sparingly in the win at Maryland and the loss at Virginia, had nothing structurally wrong with his back, and that he could be ready at any time.

“With him, we still can make a nice run,’’ Boeheim said. “But with just six guys, if one can’t play we will have trouble beating most teams.’’

Georgia Tech took control late in the first half, going on a 15-5 run, and led 31-23 at halftime.

SU closed the gap to four points just two minutes into the second half on an Ennis drive and foul shot. But the long-anticipated Orange spurt never materialized. Instead, Georgia Tech went on a 13-5 run and took a 48-36 lead with 11:30 to play. SU still trailed 57-46 at the 5:30 mark when it finally made a move.

Fair hit his only 3-pointer, Ennis scored in the lane and Fair converted a drive with 2:42 remaining to bring SU within 59-54.

Cooney finally hit a 3-pointer at the 1:48 mark to trim the gap to 61-57. But on successive key possessions, first Fair and then Ennis lost the ball while heading to the basket.

Georgia Tech missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and missed a 3-pointer to keep SU’s hopes alive. When Michael Gbinije followed a Fair miss to make it 61-59 with 40 seconds left, there was still a chance.

But with SU forced to foul, Golden, a transfer from Tennessee, was money, making all six foul shots.

“I don’t think we were aggressive enough and attacking until it was too late,’’ said Ennis, who also had seven assists. “It’s just hard to find any offensive rhythm right now. We’re trying really hard, but we’re just going through a rough patch right now.’’

For Cooney, who is now 8-for-50 from 3-point range since making nine 3-balls vs. Notre Dame, the frustration is mounting.

“The shot still feels good and I’m getting a good release,’’ Cooney said. “But it’s just not going in. I know I’m working hard to get it back, so I continue to believe I can really help this team.’’

SU finishes the regular season at Florida State on Sunday. A win would give the Orange a second or third seed in the ACC Tournament. A loss and it could fall all the way to fourth behind Virginia, Duke and North Carolina.

“I look at the big picture, not just snapshots,’’ Boeheim said. “To be 26-4 is still pretty amazing to me with what we’ve been through. But in the tournaments, seeds don’t mean a thing. It’s how you play. We’ve just got to find a way to start playing better.’’

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