Men's Basketball

Syracuse tries to mend free-throw woes against Minnesota in Maui Invitational

Sterling Boin | Staff Photographer

Forward C.J. Fair is shooting 84.2 percent from the line, but Syracuse is shooting just 61.7 percent as a team.

As Jim Boeheim’s press conference began to wind down after Syracuse’s narrow victory over St. Francis, an unfamiliar voice piped in from the camera stand.

“I know you keep up with the news quite a bit,” he said, “and I’m sure you’ve seen the coverage of the debate over Interstate 81. Just wondering what your thoughts are about that and how it affects the university.”

A renegade news reporter had found his way into the Carrier Dome’s media room.

Boeheim chuckled and looked down at the podium.

“That’s something that, you know, there’s professionals that are supposed to figure that out and figure out what really is the best thing to do,” the Syracuse head coach said. “But me? I have enough trouble figuring out how we’re going to make a free throw sometimes.”

From a broader problem for Central New York to a specific one that has plagued the Orange for what seems like years.

As everything went wrong during SU’s 56-50 win over St. Francis (N.Y.) in its opening game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, an old nemesis once again surfaced. Free throw after free throw clanged off the rim during the early portions of a 66.7-percent day before No. 9 Syracuse straightened itself out down the stretch. The Orange (4-0) will try to build off that late momentum — SU finished 12-of-14 — against Minnesota (4-0) on Monday at 5:30 p.m. in Hawaii for the first round of tournament play.

Last year, Syracuse’s 67.5 free-throw percentage tied for 231st in the country. Through four games in 2013, the Orange has been even worse. At just 61.7 percent, SU’s struggles from the line have helped lesser opponents hang around and nearly sparked a stunning upset Monday.

“It’ll come along,” Syracuse forward Jerami Grant said. “We haven’t shot free throws well this year so far.”

With 7:40 left, Tyler Ennis bricked a pair of free throws and Ben Mockford hit a 3 on the other end to give St. Francis a 43-40 lead. A near two-point lead swung into a three-point deficit.

Syracuse missed just two more free throws the rest of the day.

“Everybody had confidence in their selves,” SU forward C.J. Fair said, “and we converted the ones we needed.”

The Orange scored its next eight points at the stripe. Michael Gbinije sunk a pair. Baye Moussa Keita hit both of his. Even Grant, who’s shot a dismal 45.8 percent from the line this year, made both of his attempts. The only blemishes were 1-for-2 trips from the sharpshooter Trevor Cooney, and Fair.

“That bothers me when I miss a free throw,” Fair said.

After a layup by Grant tied the game and another by Gbinije gave SU the lead for good, Syracuse iced it at the line. Grant got to the line and put up a rare 2-for-2 to stretch the lead to four.

Eleven seconds later, Fair sunk two more. The Orange survived.

“We knew free throws were going to be big coming back,” Fair said.

Until SU turns in a full game like that, though, fans will continue to worry. As St. Francis hung around and free throws rattled out, the collective groans from the Carrier Dome crowd grew louder and louder.

Syracuse has struggled on the offensive end so far this season and, right now, the Orange can’t even rely on getting to the line.

After Saturday’s win over Cornell, Boeheim insisted that his team doesn’t take bad shots from the field. Those only come when SU gets to the line.

“We took some bad free throws,” Boeheim said. “Maybe we shouldn’t have shot those, but you’ve got to do that, right?”


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