With each defensive stop, the frustration and confusion grew. Against Georgia Tech’s mix of defenses, Syracuse was piling up misses from 3-point range and losing control of the ball, empty possessions that turned into raids on the basket at the other end.
Tech guard Curtis Haywood said he could sense that the Orange were not quite prepared for what unfolded Saturday night in the Carrier Dome, a 73-59 win for the Yellow Jackets. After an agonizing home loss to No. 9 Virginia Tech on Wednesday, Tech improved to 10-6 overall and 2-1 in the ACC.
“I could tell they were surprised; their fans were surprised, too,” Haywood told the AJC. “They underestimated us. They tried looking over us. They’ve probably got a bigger game next week. (The Orange do indeed go to No. 1 Duke next for a Monday-night matchup.) They were probably worried about that game. For us to come in here, we had to go ahead and punch ’em in the mouth a couple of times and then just come out with the win.”
Those who have followed the Jackets’ fortunes in coach Josh Pastner’s first two seasons could be excused for being caught similarly unprepared. In his first two seasons at Tech, the Jackets had a 2-16 road record in ACC play. On Friday, before the team flew up to Syracuse, Pastner said that his team needed to adopt a “road warrior mentality,” specifically calling for better defensive play.
Tech answered Pastner’s challenge, limiting Syracuse to 18-for-57 shooting, including 7-for-33 from 3-point range. The Orange were held to season lows in points, field-goal percentage (31.6 percent) and set a high for turnovers (19). Syracuse (11-5, 2-1) and coach Jim Boeheim have lost three of four matchups against Pastner.
“We might have got a little lucky,” Pastner said. “They might have been thinking about Duke on Monday. But we knew for us to win the game, we were going to have to be near perfect in our execution in he defensive game plan. I want to give our guys full credit. They were outstanding.”
Syracuse was unable to find holes in Tech’s zone, scoring just 16 points in the paint, and, with the Jackets retreating quickly on defense and stopping the ball, did not generate much in the transition game despite Tech turning the ball over 22 times.
Tech took control of the game by sharpening its defense to start the second half. Ahead 27-26 at halftime despite turning the ball over 10 times in 29 first-half possessions, the Jackets earned stops on six of Syracuse’s first seven possessions, creating open-court situations for Tech. After a defensive stop, guard Jose Alvarado bagged an open 3-pointer on an assist from Haywood for a 34-28 lead. The Jackets then denied Syracuse again, creating an open-court layup for Haywood (assist: Alvarado) to push the lead to 36-28.
On Syracuse’s next possession, Haywood dug out a loose ball under the basket, pushed the ball up the floor and found Alvarado for another 3-pointer on the wing and a 39-28 lead with 15:56 to play.
Tech made six of 12 3-pointers while coming into the game making 30.9 percent of its 3-point tries (which, remarkably, was 309th in Division I). Alvarado led with a game-high 19. Haywood added 15. They were a combined 6-for-9 from 3-point range.
“We made some 3’s,” Pastner said. “That helps. We’re just getting better.”
The push continued from there, with the lead peaking at 51-33 at the 12:15 mark on an Alvarado layup, again in transition, as forward Evan Cole pushed the pace after a defensive rebound and found Alvarado.
From there, the Orange cranked up the defensive pressure and the Jackets began showing cracks. Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim (son of coach Jim Boeheim) dropped back-to-back 3-pointers, cutting the lead to 51-41 with 10:15 to play. The Jackets were 11-for-18 from the line in the final 10:02 and turned the ball over five times in that span, but held on with defense. The Orange were made one of their next 11 shots, significantly reducing their chances for a comeback.
“It was the longest nine minutes of my life, but we hung on,” Pastner said.
Besides his 19 points, Alvarado had a stat line that included 3-for-3 shooting from 3-point range, 6-for-7 shooting from the line, three steals, two assists and (ahem) four turnovers. It was a memorable night for the sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y. He had about 20 supporters who made the drive from New York, many seeing him play at the college level in person for the first time.
“They’re pretty loud,” Alvarado said.
For Tech, it was a win worth savoring. Since joining the ACC prior to the 2013-14 season, Syracuse had won 70 percent of its ACC home games (32-14). Of the 14 defeats, only one was by a wider scoring margin than the Jackets’ 14-point win.
In three ACC games, the Jackets have now scored 92 points and shot 56 percent from the field in a win over Wake Forest, held No. 9 Virginia Tech, one of the most efficient offenses in the country, to 30 percent shooting in a 52-49 loss and now scored a head-turning road win over Syracuse.
The Jackets have proven that they’re a most capable defensive outfit – after Saturday’s game, they rank 10th nationally in defensive efficiency (KenPom). Saturday’s proceedings suggested that perhaps they bear watching.
“To win at Syracuse is unbelievable,” Pastner said, his voice raspy after trying to be heard over the 19,257 in attendance. “Our players, I’m so proud of our guys. Through six halves that we’ve played of ACC basketball – two Wake Forest, two Virginia Tech, two Syracuse – we’ve played as well as anyone in the league.”
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