Men's Basketball

Fight to the finish: After struggling to close out games, Syracuse looks to sort out 2nd-half woes against Louisville

Ryan MacCammon | Staff Photographer

C.J. Fair and No. 12 Syracuse will need to take care of the ball Saturday against a tenacious No. 10 Louisville team that leads the Big East with 18.8 turnovers forced per game. The Cardinals' plus-6.11 turnover margin is the best in the conference, and they rank No. 3 in the nation with nearly 11 steals per game.

There were six turnovers in a span of 10 possessions. A seven-point lead became a six-point deficit.

There were eight baskets allowed and only one defensive stop. A road win over a ranked opponent became the fifth loss in nine games.

A chaotic stretch from the 8:05 mark of the second half to the final 90 seconds of Monday’s loss to Marquette resulted in Syracuse’s unraveling, a far different result than the upset of Louisville roughly a month earlier.

And for C.J. Fair, there was one clear difference.

“I just think we lost our composure at the end,” Fair said at practice Thursday. “I think that’s what kind of hurts us late in games sometimes. If we go down four or five points with a few minutes left, there is still enough time to come back. We just have to take our time with that.”

Saturday’s date with the 10th-ranked Cardinals (23-5, 11-4 Big East) is the next exercise in composure for Syracuse (22-6, 10-5). It’s the rematch of one of college basketball’s most exciting games of the season — a game in which clutch plays by the Orange made the difference — and has major implications for seeding in the upcoming conference tournament. Channeling that inner calmness displayed at the KFC Yum! Center back in January could be key for the Orange to avoid its first three-game losing streak since the 2010-11 season.

The contrast between Monday’s loss to Marquette and the heart-stopping win over Louisville is monumental. With a four-point lead over the Cardinals and 4:37 on the clock, the Syracuse offense shriveled but did not panic in front of a raucous crowd on Jan. 19.

A scoring drought for nearly four minutes ensued, and Louisville surged back in front to take the lead with 1:58 remaining.

But the team without its second leading scorer at that time, the team playing a true freshman in his place, found the resolve and grit to rise up. Out went James Southerland, in came Jerami Grant.

Syracuse still battled.

“We didn’t give up,” Fair said. “I’m not saying we gave up against Marquette, but at Louisville, we were determined to win that game.”

A rapid-fire steal and dunk by Michael Carter-Williams with 23 seconds remaining put the Orange on top once more, 69-68, and represented the game’s final lead change. The SU point guard shrugged off a hellish start — six turnovers in the first half — to seize the moment and simply make a play.

Monday night in Marquette was an identical scenario with an antithetical outcome.

As Syracuse’s lead and offensive production dried up, so too did its poise. A 53-46 lead grew brittle and broke as Carter-Williams turned the ball over or missed a 3-point shot on four out of five possessions. Turnovers by Brandon Triche and Baye Moussa Keita elongated the implosion, giving Marquette a six-minute window of bad basketball on which to capitalize.

“We had some untimely turnovers,” assistant coach Gerry McNamara said after practice Thursday. “If you really look at how the game progressed, we were really good, I thought. For the majority of the game we controlled pace — we obviously were hurt on the glass and on the free-throw line — but offensively, we did so many more good things than bad.

“What happened was we just turned the ball over in the wrong spots.”

And so for just the second time all season, Syracuse faces a bit of adversity. It overcame the loss of Southerland, who has since returned, but must win Saturday to avoid falling out of the top five in the Big East standings.

McNamara said the team responded well in practice this week, showing no signs of letting the previous two losses linger. The question becomes which Syracuse team shows up in the closing stages of what should be another close game.

Frazzled and frantic, or cool and composed?

“You go one of two ways,” McNamara said. “If you face a little bit of adversity, you could lose a team, or a team could come together. Are you going to feel sorry for yourself, or is it going to motivate you to get back on track?

“I see all indications that these guys are motivated to get better.”

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