CINCINNATI (AP)—Down by six points with 12 minutes to go, third-ranked Syracuse knew it was time for some shutdown defense. The Orange nearly pitched a shutout the rest of the way.
Syracuse held Cincinnati to one field goal over the final 12 minutes on Sunday, extending the best start in school history with a 71-54 victory, its 10th in a row.
Syracuse (23-1, 10-1 Big East) closed the game with a 28-5 run that featured Kris Joseph’s two pivotal 3-pointers and a lot of good defense. The Bearcats (14-9, 5-6) managed only one field goal and three free throws after pulling ahead 49-43 with 12:26 left.
Shutdown defense indeed.
“It comes down to the last 10 minutes,” said Joseph, who finished with 17 points. “The last 10 minutes is crunch time. For us, it’s just playing great defense. We’ve seen everything. When we get on a run and get ahead, there’s not a lot of teams that can come back.”
Andy Rautins led the Orange with 20 points, helping Syracuse get through another game when its top scorer wasn’t at his best.
Wes Johnson, who fell hard in Syracuse’s win over Providence on Tuesday, was back in the starting lineup but played only 23 minutes. The forward took only three shots and had five points.
Johnson, a forward who averages a team-high 16.7 points, played only three minutes in the second half against Providence after he was fouled while going for a lob pass and hit the court hard. He was sore and missed practice during the week.
“My body wasn’t as loose as I wish it was,” Johnson said. “It’s better than it was the day after the Providence game.”
Johnson is a key component in an offense that is scoring 82.5 points a game, second-best in the league. But he was on the bench down the stretch on Sunday, letting his teammates take over.
“Wes is sore,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “He was probably pushing it to even go. He felt like he could play, but he was sore and just didn’t have the mobility. I thought just like in the last game, our other guys picked it up and our big guys played great. Everybody pitched in.”
Joseph’s first 3-pointer put Syracuse ahead to stay. His second one pushed the lead to 10.
“Kris stepped up,” Boeheim said. “He had two wide-open looks. He’s been telling me all year that he can make those shots. Those two 3s broke the game wide open.”
Cincinnati was coming off a lackluster 85-68 loss at Notre Dame that severely dented its hopes of making the NCAA tournament. That loss left the Bearcats tied with two other teams for eighth place in the Big East.
The Bearcats went 1 for 11 from the field with five turnovers during the 12-minute meltdown. Guard Deonta Vaughn, the Bearcats’ top scoring threat, finished 2 of 10 from the field, missing all of his six shots from behind the arc.
“All of my shots were good-looking,” Vaughn said. “I ended up thinking too much and missed those shots. We let it slip away in the last 10 minutes.”
Ibrahima Thomas, who hasn’t done much in the last half-dozen games, got Cincinnati off to an encouraging start. He scored seven points—more than he had in any of the last six games—during an opening 11-2 run. The Bearcats patiently passed around the perimeter of the Orange zone, then got the ball inside to draw a foul or get a layup.
It didn’t take long for Syracuse to figure it out.
Cincinnati went more than six minutes without scoring, helping the Orange pull off an 11-0 run that featured points by five players. The Bearcats passed the ball around the perimeter without finding an opening, drawing boos from the crowd. They had a shot clock violation, a blocked shot, a missed 25-footer and another rushed miss on consecutive possessions.
The lead went back and forth for the rest of the half, which ended with Syracuse up 32-30. Both teams rank near the bottom of the league in free throw shooting and had a rough time in the half—Cincinnati was 5 of 11, Syracuse 3 of 9.
Syracuse got the ball inside and went on a 6-0 run early in the second half for its biggest lead to that point, 38-32. After a timeout, Cincinnati pulled off its best offensive spurt, working the ball around for open shots. Cashmere Wright’s open 3 concluded a 15-2 run that put the Bearcats up 49-43 and got the crowd of 11,045 revved.
From there, it was all Syracuse.