No. 12 Louisville tumbles at Syracuse with guard suspended
Rakeem Christmas made amends — and then some.
Syracuse’s standout senior center rebounded from his worst game of the season, scoring 29 points and blocking four shots, and Syracuse beat No. 12 Louisville 69-59 on Wednesday night.
Reeling from a 5-for-17 shooting performance in a loss to No. 4 Duke and being outplayed by standout freshman center Jahlil Okafor on Saturday, Christmas responded like a champion. He was 9 of 10 from the floor and 11 of 13 on free throws.
"It felt good. We needed a win like this … to keep us going the rest of the season," Christmas said after the Orange’s first victory this season over a ranked team in four tries. "We all talked about keeping our heads up and getting ready for tonight’s game. Everybody had their mind right and played hard."
It was the first game between the teams as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Louisville (20-6, 8-5) was out to bounce back from Saturday’s home loss to North Carolina State, but was without senior guard Chris Jones, suspended for violating team rules; he did not make the trip. Freshman Quentin Snider made his first start in place of Jones, the team’s assist leader (3.7 per game) and third-leading scorer (13.6 points).
The Cardinals, who snared only two steals for the second straight game, have lost three of four and two straight after leading at the half.
"We couldn’t give them the pressure. It’s tough with a makeshift lineup," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "What’s stopping us from being a very good basketball team — the last three years we’ve been one of the most feared defensive teams in the nation with steals, turnovers. We’ve just been void of both."
Christmas faced his second straight challenge in Louisville’s hulking freshman center Chinanu Onuaku and stalwart forward Montrezl Harrell, who entered the game with nine double-doubles.
Harrell finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, but only scored three points in the decisive second half. Terry Rozier led the Cardinals with 17 points and Snider had a season-high 13. Wayne Blackshear, averaging nearly 11 points, fouled out with 5:16 left and did not score.
"They started picking up on our calls and started knowing what we were going to run," Harrell said. "Wayne in foul trouble early, it kind of hurt us. We let Christmas get comfortable. He caught the ball freely and had a great game. We just didn’t play enough team defense in the second half."
Louisville shot 9 of 28 (32.1 percent) in the second half while the Orange hit 11 of 19 (57.9 percent).
"It wasn’t his (Snider’s) play," Pitino said. "It was Wayne Blackshear getting in foul trouble. We missed a lot of shots that would have kept us in the game in the second half that were wide open."
Michael Gbinije continued his stellar play for the Orange, hitting a pair of 3s, notching three assists, and contributing a monster block at the rim on Rozier. He finished with 18 points and six assists. Tyler Roberson had 13 points and nine rebounds.
Syracuse trailed for most of the game before Christmas led it back, scoring 18 in the second half. The Cardinals drew within 62-57 on a 3 by Snider but never got closer. The Orange iced it by hitting 7 of 8 free throws in the final 63 seconds.
Pitino was adamant about the punishment to Jones.
"We missed him a lot," Pitino said. "It’s his selfishness that hurt the team. I believe in punishment."
Louisville held a 43-38 lead early in the second half. Syracuse, which trailed by four at the break, closed to 43-42 on a hook by Christmas in the lane. Less than two minutes later he sank two free throws to put the Orange ahead after Harrell was called for his third foul.
Snider’s jumper put the Cardinals back up 47-44, but Kaleb Joseph responded with a driving scoop and Christmas converted a three-point play and a dunk off a feed from Gbinije for a 51-47 lead. The Orange never trailed again.
"He (Christmas) is the most feared low-post player in the country. We couldn’t get around him," Pitino said. "You saw how many times we fouled him. When he was a freshman, you could leave him alone and he couldn’t score. Credit to him."
Louisville: Louisville has lost only three times in the last 81 games when leading at halftime. … Onuaku is the brother of former Syracuse center Arinze Onuaku. … Louisville leads the series with Syracuse 15-8.
Syracuse: Gbinije is averaging 22.3 points and 4.5 assists in the month of February. … Roberson has scored in double figures eight times.