Syracuse defense makes 2nd-half adjustments to shut down hot shooting Cotton
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The start resembled last year’s game: a hot-shooting Providence team and an uncharacteristically slow start by Syracuse. It produced an early Friars lead over the No. 7 team in the country, a lead that grew as large as nine, and energized an animated crowd inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center with each successive 3-pointer from Bryce Cotton.
The junior guard from Tucson, Ariz., who is listed generously at 6-feet-1-inch, connected on his first five shots from beyond the arc — some that seemed to be launched from his home state — and finished the first half with 17 of his team’s 33 points.
“There was just absolutely no excuse for that,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said.
The inexcusable led to the Orange’s first halftime deficit of the season, though it was short-lived. The Syracuse defense responded in the second half, stifling Cotton — and in turn the Providence offense — and limiting him to only seven points after the break and zero 3-pointers. With its offensive leader smothered, Providence struggled to score points and couldn’t keep pace down the stretch in a 72-66 loss to the Orange.
Boeheim opened his press conference by explaining that Cotton was the one player his team had been told to focus on going into Wednesday. He is the league’s second-leading scorer at more than 21 points per game, and a very proficient outside shooter.
So when Cotton opened the game 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, the oft-irritable Boeheim nearly blew a gasket.
“Defensively we started the game not finding the one guy that we talked about making sure we found,” Boeheim said. “And Cotton had five 3s in a row.”
Though he was dwarfed by the taller Syracuse guards atop the zone — Brandon Triche and Carter-Williams are both 6-feet-4 or taller — Cotton’s quick release on fadeaways proved lethal from the game’s opening tip. He hit all five of his 3-pointers in a 10-minute span during the first half, propelling the Friars to a 24-21 lead by the 7:56 mark.
He drained shots off of dribble penetration, as he did with his first attempt when guard Josh Fortune drove inside and kicked the ball out. Cotton nailed shots over defenders, as he did with a fadeaway from right of the circle with the zone rotating outward. And he connected in transition, as he did to tie the game at 16-16 on a beautiful feed from Vincent Council.
Wherever he went, he shot. Whenever he shot, he scored. All while avoiding the trees like Rakeem Christmas, C.J. Fair and James Southerland inside.
“We had to stop Cotton from getting easy shots,” Syracuse senior Brandon Triche said.
Cotton’s only miss in the first half was a forced 3-pointer from the top of the key in the closing seconds. It hit the backboard, the rim and caromed away, which seemed to surprise a crowd that expected nothing but makes.
And though the miss merely made the difference between a 3-point or 6-point Providence lead at the break, it foreshadowed the struggles to come.
Cotton couldn’t shake loose from the Syracuse defenders in the second half, as the Orange extended its zone deeper beyond the 3-point line and rotated hard in his direction. The result was a pair of missed 3s in the second half and zero makes.
“The rest of the game we found him, and I don’t think he made another 3,” Boeheim said. “That was a defensive key. I thought inside we played pretty well defensively.”
The solid interior defense was paired with increased attention to Cotton, and Providence was handcuffed. The Friars lacked a consistent scoring threat to pair with Cotton, as LaDontae Henton was the only other player to reach double figures, and he managed just 10 points.
Council, the Friars’ pass-first point guard, did his best to pick up the slack. He scored all eight of his points in the second half, including a double-clutch fadeaway that brought Providence within one with about six minutes to go.
“They came down and we did a great job I thought defensively and Council — I don’t know how he made that shot,” Boeheim said. “He just threw it up there.”
And that’s what it took to keep Providence close without Cotton — a shot that was just thrown up there. They cut the lead to four on another wild shot by Fortune that banked in off the glass in the closing moments, but nothing came as easy as it did in the first half.
Syracuse adjusted after its first halftime deficit of the season, and Providence never countered.
“We just keep our heads in it and came out and had to keep our composure,” Christmas said. “We just came out and played our game.”
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