AGAINST THE WIND: SU overcomes weather to get win in historic season opener aboard USS Midway
ABOARD USS MIDWAY, SAN DIEGO, Calif. — On a cloudless day with seasonably warm temperatures rolling through San Diego Harbor, the Battle on the Midway presented contrasting images both gorgeous and grotesque.
The setting — a court and grandstands erected on the flight deck of the USS Midway — was stunning, as 5,119 fans packed the bleachers and created a raucous environment for the year’s only successful game aboard an aircraft carrier out of three attempts.
The game — a sloppy, disjointed 62-49 victory for ninth-ranked Syracuse (1-0) over No. 20 San Diego State (0-1) — was painful, as the breezes intensified throughout the game and both teams struggled to shoot, pass or put forth any semblance of attractive basketball. But such is the product of an indoor sport moved outside, into the elements and out of the gymnasium, some 200 feet above the ground with no guarantee of cooperation from Mother Nature.
“I’m proud of these guys because this was a tough day,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “This was a hard game to get to the basket. And C.J. Fair, Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche got to the basket and made some hard plays, very hard plays. That was the only way you were going to score. You weren’t going to make any jump shots.”
The proof is in the shot chart, which shows just one made 3-pointer in 18 attempts by San Diego State. And the proof lies at the free-throw line, where San Diego State missed 19 times and shot a lowly 42.4 percent for the game.
Syracuse countered by scoring 55 of its 62 points in the paint or at the free-throw line. Triche and Carter-Williams combined for 32 points in the game, none of which were jump shots. The team attempted only four 3-pointers in total and none in the second half.
In this game with this wind — the breezes picked up significantly after halftime — Boeheim’s 2-3 zone baited the Aztecs into futile long-range shots and turned aside 10 others from inside the arc. Sophomore forward Rakeem Christmas blocked five shots alone and altered perhaps twice that. By game’s end, Syracuse held a 44-30 advantage in points in the paint.
“I don’t know how good Syracuse is or how good they’re going to be, but I know one thing,” San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher said. “They’re not going to get any shorter. And they gave us fits with 10 blocked shots and at least that many that they altered and came flying on any number of what looked like were going to be easy ones that rolled off and didn’t go in for us.”
The Aztecs began the game shooting at the more open end of the court, which lacked the additional wind protection provided by the USS Midway’s control tower. The result was 10 missed free throws in the team’s first 13 attempts and zero 3-pointers made.
Syracuse took full advantage and surged to a 17-4 lead less than nine minutes into the game. Fair, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, connected on his team’s only three successful jump shots from outside the paint during this stretch, including a 3-pointer from the left wing.
After that, it was layup or bust.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Boeheim said. “C.J. made a jumper and 3 to start the game. And those were the only two jump shots we made the entire game. We made those early and got that cushion.”
It saddled San Diego State with the task of climbing back from a 14-point halftime deficit while battling both Syracuse and the stiff breeze. The Aztecs shot — flung might be a better word — 14 3-pointers in the second half, connecting only once. The one successful 3 was a line drive by James Rahon that rattled home, its trajectory bereft of arc.
As it became clear that the game was out of reach by the midway point of the second half, a “Let’s go Orange!” chant erupted from a crowd in which roughly 40 percent of spectators wore that color. The environment was tremendous, the spectacle unparalleled and the decision to move the game from Friday to Sunday turned out to be the proper one on a breathtaking afternoon in San Diego.
There were no regrets for either team — merely lasting memories.
“I’m happy we were here, I’m proud that we’re here, I’m proud to be on the Midway,” Boeheim said. “It’s a great story, and the fans were great. It was a great event.”
The game felt more like a schoolyard romp than a top-20 matchup. And quality basketball was exchanged for picturesque views. But for one day and for one game and in one unforgettable setting, Sunday’s trade seemed more than fair.
“It was very exciting,” Triche said. “It brings you back to your younger days when you don’t care so much about the way you play; you’re just out there playing.”
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