Syracuse was rolling. They were up by as much as 14 points in the second half, having held the lead for the entire game despite the fact that Chris McCullough had basically done nothing for 40 minutes.
The Orange were about to put away the most important performance of their season — a win over No. 7 Villanova in Philadelphia — when disaster struck:
In the extra frame, McCullough, Rakeem Christmas and Michael Gbinije all fouled out as the Wildcats held on for an 82-77 win in the battle between old Big East rivals.
Credit where credit’s due: Villanova really played well in the second half, forcing turnovers, getting to the offensive glass and making big plays when big plays needed to be made. JayVaughn Pinkston led the way with 25 points and 10 boards while Darrun Hilliard added 23 points and four steals, including a stretch of eight straight that he had early in the second half to spark the comeback.
Villanova beat the Orange on a day where they didn’t play anywhere near their best game. Syracuse is not exactly an ACC title contender, but they’re a pretty good team that played exceptionally well on Saturday, and Villanova won despite having an off night and making some uncharacteristic mistakes.
That’s a great sign for the Wildcats.
But that won’t make Jim Boeheim feel any better about the way his team dropped this game.
Because they finally looked like the Syracuse team that everyone (except me, it seems) had slotted in the preseason top 25. Rakeem Christmas was playing great in the paint, finishing with 18 points. Michael Gbinije had easily the best game of his basketball career, finishing with 18 points, eight boards and five assists, all career-highs. Kaleb Joseph had 10 points and 10 assists, making a number of tough, crucial plays — and more importantly, correct decisions — down the stretch.
It looked like everything was starting to come together, like all it took was a chance to beat Villanova for the Orange to figure it out.
But a late turnover and some foul trouble in overtime ruined that.
This was the last chance for the Orange to notch a marquee non-conference win. If they end up on the bubble in March, this game will be the reason why.