With nothing but pride to play for, Syracuse surges

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Jim Boeheim scoffs at the thought of his Syracuse Orange not playing at a high level of intensity.

''We're going to fight,'' he said. ''It makes no sense to ever talk about it.''

Rest assured that fans of Notre Dame and Louisville already are convinced that, even with a postseason ban looming, the Orange aren't about to throw in the towel.

''We're not done,'' redshirt junior guard Trevor Cooney said. ''We want to prove to people we're a good team, that we would make the (NCAA) Tournament.''

Faced with the reality that its season will end March 7 at North Carolina State - the Orange will not participate in any postseason play, even in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament - Syracuse (18-10, 9-6 ACC) has responded well. Its wins over two top-12 programs - the Cardinals and Irish - came in a six-day span and were its first victories over ranked teams this troubled season.

That puts the team's record at 3-3 since Chancellor Kent Syverud announced a self-imposed postseason ban on Feb. 4. Syracuse beat then-No. 12 Louisville 69-59 at home last week and posted a 65-60 road victory over the No. 9 Irish on Tuesday night. Two of the losses since the ban was announced were to Pittsburgh, and No. 4 Duke beat the Orange 80-72 in the Carrier Dome, rallying from an 11-point, first-half deficit.

''This is their NCAA,'' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. ''They're showcasing their abilities.''

The Orange have held their own despite a depleted lineup and much inexperience. Freshman forward Chris McCullough was lost for the season after 16 games, depriving Boeheim of a talented big man to complement standout senior Rakeem Christmas, and hulking center Dajuan Coleman has not played. Both are recuperating from knee injuries.

Three games remain - a rematch with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, home against No. 2 Virginia on Monday night, and the Wolfpack.

''We've played good for a long time,'' said Boeheim, two victories shy of increasing his NCAA record for most 20-win seasons to 37. ''We're playing about as well as we can play.''

A decision is imminent from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, and Boeheim said this week in a radio interview that even if he had nothing to do with any violation he would accept the punishment.

''If that penalty was available, I would take that because I have been to the tournament,'' Boeheim told 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. ''I would much rather have the players go to the tournament. I am responsible, I am in charge of the program.''

Most affected is the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Christmas, who has developed into one of the top big men in the country, averaging 18.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. At least he has a chance to make amends against Duke.

The Blue Devils' standout freshman center, Jahlil Okafor, outplayed Christmas in their first meeting, scoring 23 points and snaring 13 rebounds. Christmas struggled to score 11 points on 5-of-17 shooting, missing shots he customarily makes, and registered only six rebounds. But he did block five shots and registered a team-high five assists.

''I'm just going out there giving my all,'' said Christmas, one of 14 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Trophy. ''The coaches have given me the confidence to just go out there and make plays.''

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