It was the Jackets’ most decisive home loss since a 37-point defeat in January 1981 to a Virginia team that reached the Final Four and was led by one of college basketball’s all-time greats, Ralph Sampson.
“The way we played and everything, it was just low on energy,” forward Moses Wright said. “I don’t know what it was.”
Syracuse guard Elijah Hughes made four long-range 3-pointers in the Orange’s first five possessions for a quick 12-4 lead. Hughes’ shooting (he came into the game a known quantity, shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range in the Orange’s first eight games) drew Tech out of its 1-3-1 zone, after which Pastner tried three different Jackets on Hughes before the first 10 minutes were complete.
When Hughes made three free throws at the 10:37 mark after getting fouled taking a 3-pointer, Syracuse led 29-10, and the game was a long way toward being over. Hughes finished the half with 26 points and the game with 33, making 6-of-11 from 3-point range.
“He hasn’t really had a game like that all year,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I thought he was going to keep making them all.”
Tech (4-3, 1-1 ACC) did not help its own cause. The Jackets were outhustled on the defensive glass (Syracuse had 10 offensive rebounds to Tech’s 17 defensive rebounds, a meager ratio). Center James Banks, a pillar of Tech’s defense and the leading shot blocker in Division I, at 4.7 rejections per game going into Saturday’s games, was unable to contribute a single defensive rebound or a blocked shot in 25 minutes of play.
“We need him, and he’s more than capable of being that good for us,” Pastner said of Banks. “But you can tell his level of engagement or his activity level based on his shot blocking and his defensive rebounding.”
Tech was not playing under ideal circumstances. The Jackets were playing their third game in seven days, having beaten Bethune-Cookman on Sunday and Nebraska on Wednesday. They were doing so just as semester exams began Thursday, a load that undoubtedly did not help with focus or rest. Also, Tech has been trying to stay afloat without point guard Jose Alvarado, who is out with an ankle injury.
Beyond his integral role as a floor leader, Alvarado was instrumental in Tech’s wins over Syracuse and its 2-3 zone in the past two seasons because of his feel for attacking the zone, Pastner said.
It didn’t help, also, that proud Syracuse (5-4, 1-1) had lost its past three games and at 4-4 was off to its worst start in 50 years.
After halftime, when Syracuse already led 48-28, Orange guard Buddy Boeheim (son of the legendary coach) took over for Hughes, scoring 20 points and shooting 4-for-6 from 3-point range in the second half as the Jackets’ defense became increasingly desperate and fragmented. Syracuse finished 14-for-33 from 3-point range, the third most 3-pointers that a Pastner team has allowed at Tech. The Jackets’ defense of the 3-point arc has been perhaps its greatest strength since last season.
“We told our guys, those two guys (Hughes and Boeheim), you cannot give an inch,” Pastner said. “And they were a house on fire.”
Guard Michael Devoe, who entered the game leading the ACC in scoring, at 23.8 points per game, was limited to single digits for the first time this season, with seven points on 2-for-12 shooting.
“We just wanted to be there every time he caught it,” Jim Boeheim said. “Didn’t want to give him any space or driving lanes. We did a good job with him.”
Anticipating Syracuse’s focus on Devoe, Pastner and his staff looked to Wright, going so far as to call on him for a 30-point, 15-rebound game, which would have been career highs in both categories. Playing with some indecision out of the high post against the zone and also missing some close-range shots, Wright led the Jackets with 17 points on 8-for-17 shooting with nine rebounds, but had four turnovers.
Two shortcomings that have followed the Jackets most of the young season, free-throw shooting and turnovers, continued Saturday. The Jackets turned the ball over 19 times and shot 7-for-18 (38.9 percent), which tied for the fourth worst percentage (minimum 15 attempts) in the school record book.
“It’s definitely an issue,” Pastner said of the free-throw shooting, now at 58.6 percent for the season, which figures to be in the bottom 5 percentile of Division I after Saturday’s games.
The loss could be written off as a one-off outlier, a confluence of bad timing for a shorthanded team against an opponent shooting hot and playing with urgency. Regardless, it’s one more loss – and a rout at home on top of it – for a team whose flickering NCAA tournament hopes can’t afford many more losses before the bulk of ACC play starts New Year’s Eve at Florida State. And Tech goes to No. 8 Kentucky on Saturday.
Pastner is banking on a healthy Alvarado and the addition of transfer guard Jordan Usher on Dec. 18 for the Ball State game to bolster the Jackets.
“We’ve got to bounce back from this game,” Wright said. “We’ve got to take this as a learning opportunity, not as a loss.”