For the first time in UConn's three matchups with Syracuse this season, UConn did not need to fight back from humongous deficits. Conversely, UConn held an eight-point lead with 12:20 left in the half. Still, with that much time left, the game was far from over. With 8:02 left in the contest, the game swung in favor of Syracuse. At this moment, UConn forced one of its season low four turnovers. Ryan Boatright took a steal from Kris Joseph and gave the ball to a flying Shabazz Napier down the right side. Napier took the ball from the wing and, rather than passing the ball back on a two-on-one fast break, drove wildly to the hole, missing a layup. Syracuse's hero, James Southerland, got the rebound and got the ball ahead of the court. Following a monster block by Andre Drummond, Syracuse got the offensive rebound, passed the ball back out to Southerland who hit a three from the top of the key to cut UConn's lead to one. Two possessions later, Napier commits a poor turnover in the lane, leading to a Dion Waiters jumper and a lead Syracuse never surrendered. On the ensuing Syracuse possession, Southerland hit another three to extend the UConn deficit to four.
What Went Right
During the first 30 minutes, UConn did a very impressive job against the vaunted Syracuse zone. UConn forced the Orange defenders to constantly move and react to swinging passes and numerous feeds to the high post. UConn used Tyler Olander consistently on the high post, giving him opportunities to take mid-range jump shots, feed Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi inside, and kick out to UConn's three-headed attack at the guard spot. This is the most effective offense against a zone and UConn played it perfectly. While the plan was done well, the execution was not as successful. Olander shot 2-7 from this point. Similarly, Roscoe Smith shot 0-6 from a similar position on the floor. This offense against the zone will be a necessity if UConn is selected to play in the NCAA tournament on Sunday.
Andre Drummond played very well for UConn today. Syracuse's main Achilles heel is defensive rebounding. Drummond attacked the offensive glass (one time in an absolutely mesmerizing display of athletic ability) and grabbed seven offensive boards. When not pulled out by screeners, Drummond protected the paint with three blocks and many drives altered. This anchor in the middle was the catalyst for UConn's solid defensive effort throughout the game by the entire squad.
What Went Wrong
While the first thirty minutes showed UConn's ability against the zone, the Huskies fell back into their old ways over the last quarter of the game. UConn appeared exhausted at the end of the game. The ball became a bunch of passes thirty feet from the hoop followed by a high ball-screen and a one-on-one take by Boatright or Napier. Three games in three days can have that effect on a team, but with the magnitude of the game, the Huskies needed to push through.
I did not discuss this following the win over West Virginia, but UConn's free throw shooting was atrocious both games. Today, UConn only shot 5-10 from the line, a 50% mark. In close
While the defense was solid, UConn only forced four turnovers and only scored four points off of those turnovers. UConn struggled to score all day and without any really easy buckets, UConn could never extend their lead past eight or keep the lead for more than a couple of minutes.
Dion Waiters physical play was difficult for UConn to defend. To play the top of the Jim Boeheim zone, Syracuse recruits big guards. With Scoop Jardine struggling, Waiters took over that role. He was too big and strong for Napier or Boatright to guard today. He used screens well and was able to drive to the hole without much impeding his way. Beyond Waiters, James Southerland hurt UConn late in the second half. He hit two big threes, another jumper, and played great defense on Napier's blown fast break mentioned previously.
In a similar number of minutes overall, Syracuse's bench outscored UConn's 30-12. While Syracuse's bench is the top scoring in the nation, these numbers occurred with UConn's bench taking only three fewer shots.
Stars of the Game
1. Andre Drummond played very well for UConn and was the Huskies second-leading scorer. He shut down Fab Melo and showed the physicality UConn had been looking for all season. His rebounding was better than the rest of the year. His positioning was much better and he got in front of Melo, Southerland, and Joseph to snag the ball off of missed shots.
2. Jeremy Lamb's offense was incredibly quiet today, putting up only nine shots, but his defense was suffocating on Kris Joseph throughout the game. He matched up on Joseph for nearly the entire game and limited him to 1-8 shooting from the field. Still, he did not do enough offensively and is UConn's key piece on that end.
3. As UConn's leading scorer, Shabazz Napier takes the third spot. Napier scored 15 points and hit some big shots when UConn needed them. At the same time, he had five turnovers and a few other questionable decisions. In the NCAA tournament, UConn will need Napier to play under control to make a run.
UConn must now wait until Sunday to learn its post-season fate. With a top 3 strength of schedule, a strong run in the last few games, and six top 50 RPI wins, UConn should hear its name being called.
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