Tyler Ennis

Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair help No. 2 Syracuse survive an upset bid from St. John’s

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St. John’s trailed by a dozen at halftime  to No. 2 Syracuse. But in the second half, the Red Storm were able to attack the Orange defense, while containing freshman point guard Tyler Ennis (21 points) on the other end.

The Red Storm played a spirited second half, erasing a what was a 13-point deficit to take the lead on several occasions. However, the undefeated Orange took the Johnnies best shot and countered with some late-game play-making by Ennis and clutch shot-making from senior forward C.J. Fair (21 points) to hold on and avoid the upset, leaving Madison Square Garden with a 68-63 win.

St. John’s took a 60-58 lead with under six to play, but Ennis proved that he is a point guard beyond his years in the final five minutes.

The Cuse point guard had 13 points in the first, which helped the Orange take a double-digit lead. The majority of the second half was a different story. The freshmen was held in check, along with back court mate Trevor Cooney (0 points, 0-for-3 from three). The St. John’s defense clawed back into the game by limiting Ennis’ production on offense by keeping him out of the lane.

If you watched Ennis this season, you can tell, he as poised a point guard as they come, and despite struggling for much of the second half he was able to regroup and make the plays to keep his team unbeaten.

He tie the score with a pair of free throws, and after being kept of the lane, Ennis found himself in the paint once again, this time for the scoop and the 62-60 lead. And if it wasn’t Ennis making the plays, it was Fair coming up with the big shots. After Fair hit a turnaround jumper to make it a two-possession game, Fair popped out towards the baseline and received a perfectly-placed pass from Ennis for the shot and the 66-61 lead. Ennis added two more free throws with under a minute to play.

While Ennis and Fair executed down the stretch for Cuse, St. John’s came away empty-handed more times than not. The Red Storm went 0-for-5 from the field, and missed three free throws, while Cuse took a seven-point edge.

It wasn’t his best game, and he certainly looked like a freshman at points during the second half. But Ennis shook off the second half struggles and bounced back. Coupled with the leadership and experience of Fair and the duo made big plays, in big moments to improve to 10-0.

Ennis may not have the pro potential as other highly-touted freshmen, but his impact rivals any first-year player’s this season.

Battle 4 Atlantis title proves Syracuse will be relevant this season

rad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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Michael Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney added 15 points and five assists as Syracuse left the Bahamas with a title, beating No. 25 Texas A&M 74-67 in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

I guess it’s time to start taking the Orange seriously.

There’s a lot to like about this group. Gbinije and Cooney are both fifth-year seniors that not only understand how to operate at the top of the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim runs, but they both have developed into versatile offensive weapons. Cooney was known as nothing more than a jump-shooter when he arrived up north, but he’s now averaging 3.5 assists on the season.

And Gbinije?

He has been one of the best players in the country through the first two weeks of the season. Through six games, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.0 boards and 2.8 steals while shooting 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Freshman Malachi Richardson, who had 16 points in the win over A&M, has scored double-figures in all six games this season while another freshman, Tyler Lydon, was against terrific on Friday, finishing with 13 points and eight boards. He’s now shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc this season.

And that’s where this team is going to do the majority of their damage this season.

Through six games, they’re shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the three wins in the Bahamas, the Orange knocked were 34-for-73 from beyond the arc, a 46.5 percent clip. The question isn’t whether or not that rate can continue — four of the six players that saw action on Friday are dangerous three-point shooters while the other two, Tyler Roberson  and DaJuan Coleman, aren’t going to be shooting threes — but what happens on the nights where the threes aren’t going down.

There are going to be nights where they shoot 5-for-25 instead of 11-for-25. Will they have enough firepower then? Will their defense be good enough? Will guys like Roberson and Coleman be able to supply a scoring punch? Will Cooney, Gbinije and Richardson attack the paint instead of settling for jumpers?

Because at the very least, these three games in the Bahamas have proven that the Orange are going to be relevant this season, even in the loaded ACC. Whether that means they’re going to push for a top four finish or simply end the year as a tournament team remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Jim Boeheim has himself a squad Upstate.

No. 10 Gonzaga outlasts No. 18 UConn despite late offensive struggles

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No. 10 Gonzaga survived a furious rally from No. 18 UConn to win the third place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 73-70.

The Zags were up by as much as 21 points early in the second half, leading 48-27, but UConn slowly chipped away at the lead. Kyle Wiltjer led four players in double-figures with 17 points while Eric McClellan added 15 points, making a number of key plays in the second half when it looked like the Zags were in danger of giving away the lead.

As good as Gonzaga looked in the first 22 minutes of this game — and they looked really, really good — the second half exposed the concerns that many had with this group entering the season. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who both shot around 40 percent from beyond the arc and started for four years, graduated, meaning that Gonzaga’s point guard situation is, more or less, Josh Perkins.

Perkins was terrific in the second half of a loss to Texas A&M on Thursday. He played 17 foul-plagued minutes against UConn. When UConn’s defense ratcheted up during the second half, Gonzaga struggled finding a way to consistently get good shots on the offensive end. Part of that was due to ineffective point guard play and part of it was a result of not really having anyone on the offensive end that can create a look on their own. As skilled as Wiltjer is, his impact can be limited when pick-and-pop actions aren’t working and he’s getting doubled in the post.

Perkins is talented, but this is essentially his first season of college basketball; he was a medical redshirt last season after breaking his jaw last November. There are going to be ups-and-downs, and that’s problematic on a team where he is essentially the only point guard on the roster.

The good news?

Gonzaga beat a good UConn team on a day when their best players struggled in crunch-time. It was McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that made the big plays down the stretch, not the big names on the Gonzaga roster.