Friday February 19th, 2010

WASHINGTON -- All night Syracuse sophomore forward Kris Joseph, who played his high school ball at D.C.'s Archbishop Carroll, kept seeing familiar faces in the crowd -- but "guys who obviously root for Georgetown."

Occasionally throughout the game, Joseph returned the eye contact to his friendly antagonists, including the fellow who, as the Orange broke their timeout huddle up one point with 26 seconds to play, told him the game was over and that Georgetown's miraculous second-half comeback would soon be complete.

Then the 6-foot-7 Joseph, a wing player, was matched up against the Hoyas' 6-10 center Greg Monroe and, with his Syracuse teammates spread wide, Joseph drove past the big man and calmly laid in the decisive basket with nine seconds to go as the visiting No. 5 Orange (25-2 overall, 12-2 Big East) staved off a furious rally for the 75-71 win over No. 10 Georgetown (18-7, 8-6).

"This whole season I've felt like I'm a mismatch for guys who are 4's or 5's guarding me -- I feel like I can take them off the dribble," said Joseph, noting those same jeering fans all wore sad and droopy faces after his basket and adding with a smile, "I probably have a few texts from some of them right now."

That isolation play had been coach Jim Boeheim's design -- which is remarkable, given that Joseph, Syracuse's second-leading scorer, had suffered through a 2-for-10 shooting night. In explaining the call after the game, Boeheim prefaced his comments by saying, "Kris just had a horrendous night. He kept missing layup after layup."

Then, Boeheim added, "That's why I went to him at the end. I knew he was due." It was hard to know if he was kidding.

The real surprise was that Syracuse needed last-minute heroics at all. With 12:37 to play the Orange led by 23 and had held to Georgetown to 12-of-42 shooting (28.6 percent). Boeheim said that through the early second half his team played "as well as we could play." That's a strong statement about a team that leads the country in field-goal percentage and is in the top 10 in assists, steals, blocks and fewest fouls committed.

But then fatigue, foul trouble and a furious offensive attack from the Hoyas cut the lead to one on two occasions. Senior guard Andy Rautins, who scored a game-high 26 points after hitting five of his first seven three-pointers, was Syracuse's unquestioned star but, worn down while logging 36 minutes, he didn't make a field goal in the game's final eight and a half minutes.

The weakness exposed during this game -- for both teams -- was depth. Georgetown's top four subs combined for 54 minutes and 0 points. And Syracuse's Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku fouled out, leaving its banged-up star, Johnson, on the floor for the full 40. The undersized Orange players left on the court were unable to defend Monroe in the post or Austin Freeman or Chris Wright on drives to the lane. The Hoyas scored 30 points in the paint in the second half.

In the Syracuse locker room after the game, Wesley Johnson held up the right hand he injured against UConn. As bruised and swollen as it was, he insisted that it was a lot better than it had been the night before after a steady dose of ice and electric stimulation treatment. He pointed to the knuckles at the base of his swollen index and middle fingers, barely visible from the swelling, and said they were non-existent the day before. Minutes later, the trainer wrapped the hand in a huge bag of ice.

Boeheim said Johnson couldn't even hit the rim when shooting threes in practice the day before -- an assessment the player confirmed -- but Johnson scored 16 points against Georgetown, even hitting two three-pointers and all eight of his free throws. Johnson had also taken a hard fall on his back earlier in the month against Providence, so when a reporter asked Boeheim if any of Johnson's occasional struggles were mental, the veteran coach erupted, denouncing it as "the most ridiculous question of the year."

Still, Boeheim was reduced to playing Johnson all 40 minutes, because of foul trouble. The Orange really only have a seven-man rotation, featuring one reserve forward (Joseph) and one guard (Scoop Jardine). That's why assistant coach Mike Hopkins frequently leaves newspaper clippings about star NBA sixth men Manu Ginobili and Jason Terry in the lockers of Joseph and Jardine as motivational tools. (Joseph, incidentally, says he's the Ginobili of those two but is now angling for a Jamal Crawford comparison.)

Georgetown, meanwhile, succinctly showed its two sides in one game. There's one Hoyas squad that defeats top-10 Duke and Villanova by double digits; then there's another one that interjects head-scratching defeats at home to South Florida and at Rutgers.

In the first half the Hoyas were an easily frustrated team and too complacent on offense. Five times in the first half they were whistled for fouls after missed shots or turnovers, infractions for futile reach-ins or over-the-backs in pursuit of hopeless rebounds. The angst persisted into the second half, perhaps prodded by an overzealous Georgetown student section that virulently challenged even the most mundane of foul calls, even chanting an unprintable anatomical name toward Rautins after he fell to the court in apparent pain. Rautins received the brunt of the Hoya students' ire, much of it for his gelled-up hair that the fans reminded him belonged on the Jersey Shore.

But for all the chippy aggression, the Hoyas too often settling for contested jumpers and rarely attacking the interior of the Syracuse zone. More than 19 minutes of the first half passed before a player other than Monroe attempted a free throw. The Hoyas scored four points in the paint before intermission.

Despite his inability to hit an outside jumper -- starting the game 1-for-8 shooting (and 1-for-4 beyond the arc) -- Freeman didn't start attacking the hoop until the second half, when the deficit was already a baker's dozen. A fire awoke in him, though, as he hit 7-of-8 two-point field goals in the second half, including a hoop-and-harm with 3:26 to play that cut lead to four and then a thundering tomahawk jam to cap a fastbreak on the next possession, bringing the Hoyas to within 67-65 -- the first time Georgetown had been that close since the score was 3-2.

"I'm proud of our guys," Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. "Losing is hell and after a loss there is nothing but misery and pain ... but I'm proud of how our guys responded."

But it was the Orange's night as they edged a half-game ahead of Villanova for first place in the Big East and clinched a first-round bye in the Big East tournament. It's been a brilliant coaching job by Boeheim, turning a preseason unranked team into a top-5 power, not to mention tonight's master stroke of entrusting the final play to Joseph, who was all too happy to ruin the night of the D.C. faithful.

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