Men's Basketball

Christmas rebounds from poor performances in win over No. 25 Notre Dame

Andrew Renneisen | Staff Photographer

Syracuse forward Rakeem Christmas guards Notre Dame forward Tom Knight. Christmas helped slow Cooley after struggling against the forward a year.

It took 90 seconds and two offensive possessions for Rakeem Christmas to score more points Monday than he did over the weekend against Pittsburgh. He only needed one attempt, one isolation play on the right block and one right-handed shot that fell softly through the net.

Those two points were two more than he managed in 21 minutes in Saturday’s loss to the Panthers, and they kick started what turned out be a game that Jim Boeheim called the best of Christmas’ career.

“I think we both knew that I needed to get him the ball more so he could have a chance to be a presence down low,” sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “And he was.”

One year removed from being bludgeoned by Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley on the road in South Bend, Ind., Christmas redeemed himself with an impressive and assertive performance in Syracuse’s 63-47 win over the No. 25 Irish (18-5, 6-4 Big East) on Monday. He chipped in 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked four shots for No. 9 Syracuse (19-3, 7-2), all while outscoring — and outplaying — Cooley.

Christmas’ dominant play rewrote the script following his inauspicious debut as the starting center last season. It was Syracuse’s first game without Fab Melo when the Orange traveled to South Bend, Ind., as the No. 1 team in the country, meaning Christmas was shoved into duty.

He left the Joyce Center thoroughly outmuscled, as Cooley poured in 17 points and 10 rebounds while controlling the paint singlehandedly.

“I think he was challenged from the success that Cooley had against us last year,” Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara said. “It was our first loss, and it was the first loss without Fab. I think he took it a little bit personal. He came in with a little bit of edge, and that’s how he’s got to play. He was phenomenal.”

The first basket energized him, especially after all four plays the Orange called to get him the ball in Pittsburgh failed to materialize, and that exuberance carried over onto the defensive end of the floor.

He swatted away a shot attempt by Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins late in the first half, igniting a fastbreak that culminated in a traditional three-point play by Brandon Triche. And moments later his teammates returned the favor, calling a double high screen that allowed him to role to the basket for an easy layup on a feed from Carter-Williams.

“That’s one thing we wanted to do is just focus on getting him the ball early, give him a chance to make plays,” Triche said. “We know if he scores early, then his energy on defense is going to be a lot better.”

It was energy that would certainly be needed against Cooley, who entered Monday’s game as the leading rebounder in the Big East — he is the only player averaging double figures with 11.3 — and was labeled one of the best rebounders in the country by Boeheim, Christmas and C.J. Fair.

Christmas battled Cooley for 36 minutes, playing through two first-half fouls, but demonstrating the poise and self-control needed to remain on the court. The plan was to box out hard, shoving Cooley away from the basket, and create space for the guards or forwards to sneak in for rebounds. The strategy worked, as the trio of Fair, Triche and Jerami Grant combined to corral 21 rebounds.

For one of the few times in his two-year career, Christmas was fully engaged from start to finish. The tremendous athleticism and potential have had fans drooling ever since he was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, but he has put forth only a handful of complete performances.

Monday was one of them, and Triche said it was Christmas’ most complete game in a Syracuse uniform. The defensive intensity — he blocked two shots in the span of 98 seconds to open the second half — was matched by an encouraging offensive performance that featured more than just dunks.

He even mixed in a mid-range jumper as the shot clock expired on the offensive possession between his back-to-back blocks.

“Rakeem was the best he’s played since he’s been here in terms of being active on offense,” Boeheim said. “We need him to rebound better, but he was much better offensively.”

For perhaps the first time all season, Christmas admitted to being frustrated with his lack of touches inside against Pittsburgh. He said he went to Carter-Williams, his roommate, and spoke up about his desire to be a bigger part of the offense.

Their bedroom doors remain open, Christmas said, mostly so they can yell at each other. But he conceded the principal message was simple: Please give me the ball.

Said Christmas with a smile: “It was something like that.”

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