SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP)—Jim Boeheim liked what he saw for one half. As it turned out, that was enough to lift his Syracuse Orange to another victory.
Syracuse used a smothering defense in the first half to put Holy Cross in a deep hole, then held off the Crusaders 72-64 on Monday night.
Syracuse (7-0), which trailed by 15 points in the first half of two of its previous three games, made certain that wouldn’t happen again. Holy Cross shot just 30.8 percent in the opening half and the Orange went 13-for-17 on free throws as the Crusaders picked up 13 fouls and failed to get a single opportunity at the line.
Holy Cross missed 10 of its first 13 shots and scored just five points in the first 11 minutes. The Crusaders also committed 14 turnovers before the break and fell behind 22-7 at 8:17 after a 3-pointer by Demetris Nichols and two free throws by Josh Wright.
“We played the best defense we’ve played in a long time. We did a tremendous job,” Boeheim said. “We left them open twice, and they made two 3s. Otherwise, we would have had the best defensive half that we’ve ever had here.”
It showed on the stat sheet.
Speedy Torey Thomas, who was averaging 14.4 points per game, struggled to penetrate the lane and made his lone basket of the first half on a driving layup with 1:23 left. Thomas, who missed his first five shots, finished with six points in 37 minutes.
Center Tim Clifford, who was in foul trouble early, scored five points, all in the second half before fouling out with 4:37 left. The 6-foot-10 center, who was averaging 11.2 points per game, had only one rebound.
“I’m tremendously disappointed in our energy and focus tonight,” Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard said. “The first half was ridiculous. We didn’t execute offensively at all, and we didn’t follow the game plan defensively. We let them get some separation from us.”
A 3-pointer by Alex Vander Baan and a hook in the lane by Greg McCarthy in the final minute narrowed Syracuse’s lead to 31-19 at halftime.
The second half was a different story. The Orange were hit with 15 fouls and Holy Cross made 14-of-19 free throws. That helped the Crusaders, who trailed most of the game by double digits, make it close in the final minutes.
A layup by Eric Meister and three free throws by Colin Cunningham had them within 62-55 with 3:21 left. A 3 by Keith Simmons in the final minute pulled them to 66-60, and two free throws by Cunningham made it 68-64 with 17.4 seconds left.
Eric Devendorf and Nichols then each made a pair of free throws to seal the victory, easily the Orange’s narrowest of the season.
“The first half we came out with more of a focus on playing defense and taking those guys out of what they wanted to do and pretty much get out to a fast start,” said Wright, who finished with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists, one turnover and a dunk. “That’s what we did. The second half we weren’t as excited on defense and we paid for it.”
Simmons, a career 45 percent shooter on 3-pointers, missed both shots he took from beyond the arc in the opening half and finished 2-for-7 from long range. But he did score 16 of his game-high 22 points in the second half to spur the Holy Cross rally.
“We came in and let the whole idea of playing Syracuse get to us,” Simmons said. “We just played scared in the first half. That played right into their hands.”
Nichols scored 21 points to lead Syracuse, while center Darryl Watkins, who sat out the previous two games with a nose injury, had seven points and six rebounds in 21 minutes while playing with a plastic guard over his nose.
“We got off to a good start. I guess that’s something we can be happy about.” Boeheim said.