Men's Basketball

INSIDE OUT: Fair, Christmas make up for Syracuse’s poor shooting with dominant low-post play in win over Providence

Courtesy of The Providence Journal

C.J. Fair helps swat a ball away from Providence forward Sidiki Johnson in Syracuse's 72-66 win over the Friars on Wednesday. Fair gave the Orange a boost in the low post, finishing with 23 points and four blocks.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Each miss was more puzzling than the last. James Southerland and Brandon Triche, Syracuse’s two most reliable outside shooters, found every part of the rim and none of the net, from every conceivable angle, against less-than-stellar defense.

By halftime, they had missed 12 of their 14 combined shots and Syracuse trailed for the first time all season. By the end, that number reached 19 misses out of 26 attempts, but the Orange had somehow survived.

The reason for SU’s perseverance took the form of two players, one whose grittiness was proven and the other whose contributions were unexpected. Behind 23 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks from C.J. Fair, coupled with a career-high 15 points and eight rebounds from Rakeem Christmas, the Orange gutted its way to a 72-66 win over Providence in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Wednesday. Syracuse (15-1, 3-0 Big East) shook off its worst shooting performance of the season from 3-point range to come from behind and beat the Friars (8-7, 0-3 Big East) in front of 11,121 spectators.

“Offensively we haven’t seen zones much, and when you don’t shoot the ball well against a zone you’re going to have trouble,” SU head coach Jim Boeheim said. “They were 9-for-18 (from 3-point range). We were 3-for-21.”

That futility from outside forced the Orange inside, a place that has been unpredictable this season. Aside from Fair’s leadership and consistency, the frontcourt has been a weakness.

It’s what made Christmas’ offensive emergence so impressive, so timely and so necessary.

“This is a night that we needed to have him, when he’s just dunking on guys,” senior guard Brandon Triche said. “He was way more active defensively. … When he’s that active — we need one of the big guys to produce, and he did that tonight.”

Christmas split his scoring evenly on Wednesday, with seven points in the first half and eight in the second. But a one-minute stretch in the opening portion of the second half showcased how dynamic the 6-foot-9-inch, Uber-athletic Christmas can be.

He dunked on back-to-back possessions following great feeds from Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, sealing his defender on his back and finishing strong with an unimpeded path to the rim.

Moments later, Carter-Williams found Christmas again on an identical pass that hit from right to left across the lane. Christmas drew a foul and hit both free throws.

That flurry came during a stretch in which Providence switched from zone defense to man. The Friars immediately reverted back.

“I was just going out there and having fun playing hard,” Christmas said. “I was open, and I was just going. Mike knew when I was open, and he was passing it well.”

Christmas, Carter-Williams and Fair were the only three Syracuse players “going” on Wednesday, as they accounted for 55 of the team’s 72 total points. And leading all scorers was Fair, who poured in 23.

With the Friars in zone defense, Fair operated at the free-throw line for much of the game offensively. It allowed him to turn and drive, which he did through contact and multiple defenders, to reach the rim for baskets or fouls.

He scored 10 points over the final nine minutes of the game, including a put-back dunk off a miss by Carter-Williams that Boeheim called “pretty good” before he corrected himself and said “pretty spectacular” seconds later.

“I was trying to be aggressive,” said Fair, who iced the game by going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 90 seconds. “A couple of my teammates weren’t knocking down shots they normally make. I was trying to be active on the offensive and defensive glass. That’s something that we can take advantage of against smaller teams.”

In addition to their offensive outbursts, Fair and Christmas combined for all seven of Syracuse’s blocks defensively. Their control of the paint on both ends of the floor contributed to a 46-24 edge for SU in points in the paint, as well as an 18-9 advantage in offensive rebounding.

For perhaps the first time all year, Syracuse’s shooters truly failed them – a game in November on an aircraft carrier where shooting was near-impossible aside. And finally someone joined Fair to pick up the slack inside.

Providence had no answer for Christmas, a player whose offensive production likely surprised the Friars, and Fair, a bruiser who the Orange can now rely on.

So as the shots from the outside went awry, someone was there to catch them.

Said Christmas: “We executed, and we got it done.”

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