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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has to be impressed with his third-ranked Orange, no matter what he says in the heat of the moment.
After two, gritty two-point wins in a three-day span — at then-No. 1 Louisville on Saturday and at home on Monday against No. 21 Cincinnati — Syracuse sits alone atop the Big East standings.
The Orange have only lost once in 29 conference regular-season games in the past calendar year and have beaten their opponents this season by an average of 19.2 points. Winning two close games in a row is a good sign for a team that hasn't been tested too much.
Aside from a four-point loss to Temple at Madison Square Garden just before Christmas, Detroit gave Syracuse its biggest scare the night Boeheim won his 900th game. The Titans rallied from 20 points down in the final minutes before the Orange escaped with a 72-68 win, thanks in large part to 22 points from sharpshooting senior forward James Southerland.
"These guys have made plays in the games we've had, and even the game we lost," Boeheim said after Syracuse's 57-55 comeback win over the Bearcats on Monday. "They fight it, and when we're not playing well they keep fighting it. If they weren't battlers, we easily could've had two, maybe three losses in the conference."
Instead, at 6-0, the Orange are the only team in the Big East with an unblemished record in league play, and they've won the past three games without their steadiest outside shooter.
Southerland, second on the team in scoring at 13.6 points and the team leader with 33 makes from behind the arc, was declared out indefinitely because of an eligibility matter involving academics that has yet to be resolved.
Southerland is still practicing with the team and has been on the bench in street clothes at the last two home games, flashing an occasional smile amid all the frustration he's most certainly feeling.
In his absence, freshman Jerami Grant has stepped in and played well, averaging 9.3 points and 5.6 rebounds while blocking four shots in the three games. He was instrumental in a 72-61 home win over Villanova 11 days ago in his first extended action of the season, scoring a season-high 13.
Still, Boeheim was quick to point out that both Grant and redshirt freshman Trevor Cooney had defensive lapses against Cincinnati. Sean Kilpatrick was left open too many times and hit six 3-pointers as the Bearcats nearly had the upset.
"We can't afford that," Boeheim said. "You can't leave a guy like that open."
Syracuse beat Louisville by snagging three turnovers in the final seconds, the last two forced by point guard Michael Carter-Williams. He intercepted a pass at the top of the key with the game tied at 68-all and scored the winning basket on a breakaway slam dunk with 23 seconds left, then stole the ball again under the Orange basket as the Cardinals were vying for the tie. C.J. Fair was credited with the winning tip-in against Cincinnati with 19.4 seconds left in regulation after Grant failed to convert a drive through the lane.
Small wonder that both Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Cincinnati's Mick Cronin were dumbstruck, as was Boeheim.
"Without those two things happening, we're 0-2 and everybody is going, 'Syracuse is in trouble,' because we should've lost both those games," Boeheim said. "That's why Rick (Pitino) was so upset. There was no way on earth that Louisville should've lost that game ... and there was less of a chance for Cincinnati to lose. The game was completely over."
Not until the final horn. Not with Carter-Williams and fellow guard Brandon Triche, the Orange's leading scorer, running the floor.
"Our guards have got to play great," Boeheim said. "That's the bottom line with this team."
That's a given, and they've responded. Triche had 23 points and six rebounds against Louisville, while Carter-Williams had 16 points and seven assists in each of the past two games, more than making up for 11 turnovers. Both hit key shots late in each game.
"You don't want to have confidence that you're going to be down and come back. That's not good confidence," said Triche, who had to sit much of the second half against Villanova because of foul trouble. "The confidence is that we're going to stick it out, we're not going to get down on each other. We're just going to play for each other.
"These last three wins were great team wins and shows what type of team we are."