NEW YORK- For the first six minutes against St. John’s on Saturday afternoon, No. 2 Syracuse looked out of sync. They had opened 0-of-5 from the field and had settled for jumpers against an undersized Red Storm team.
Then, in the span of 24 seconds, it changed.
Center Fab Melo slammed home a Kris Joseph miss and blocked a shot at the other end of the floor, which sparked a fastbreak and another tip-slam putback, this one from Joseph, forcing a St. John’s timeout.
Madison Square Garden was on its feet and Syracuse never trailed again, cruising to a 95-70 win in New York City.
Melo, the catalyst to that early run, went on to score a career-high 14 points and block two shots in his first game back since the school resolved academic issues that forced him to miss three games.
“I was looking forward to this game a lot,” Melo said. “I felt great. It’s always great to go out and help my team win. I love to play here.”
The MSG crowd embraced Melo in his return, which was an overwhelming sea of orange Syracuse shirts, despite it being a St. John’s home game.
“I thought Fab was good,” said Boeheim. “When you miss a few games, it’s always tough to come back, but I thought he was good. He missed some early [shots] that I thought he would have had. He’s worked hard. He works hard every day and has had good practices.”
Syracuse (23-1, 10-1) exploited the size advantage they had over St. John’s (10-13, 4-6), outrebounding them by 13 and holding the Red Storm to 40 percent shooting from the floor. Much of the credit goes to Melo.
“In the zone, I know I affect the zone,” he said. “I intimidate the other team when they try to go in and get layups.”
Despite the fact Melo only grabbed two rebounds himself, his presence alone helped to flip the script on the -16 rebounding deficit Syracuse suffered in their narrow win over West Virginia on Jan. 28.
On the offensive end, Syracuse opened the vertical dimension of their offense, getting the ball above the rim and letting Melo finish.
“It was great having Fab back,” said sophomore guard Dion Waiters, who finished with 14 points. “You can see his presence is felt. We missed the big guy and he came back better than ever.”
Freshman Michael Carter-Williams also had a career high for Syracuse with 13 points in 17 minutes. The talented first-year player also had an authoritative slam in the second half that put an exclamation point on the victory.
“I tell [Carter-Williams] every day, ‘You’re playing behind one of the best backcourts in the country,'” said Boeheim. “I don’t think anybody has three guards like we have.”
Carter-Williams was featured in NBC’s look back at the 2011 Jordan Brand game, in which he was a participant.
On a note that was rather downplayed, Boeheim tied former North Carolina coach Dean Smith for third all-time on the Division I wins list with 879.
“It’s great,” said Boeheim. “It’s a great honor, but we’re focused on trying to get to the next game and that’s what we’re going to continue to try to do.”
Syracuse heads back home to take on No. 14 Georgetown on Feb. 8. The Hoyas trail the Orange by two games in the race for the Big East title.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_