C.J. Fair was the only senior on the floor, and he took control.
St. John's (6-3) gave a valiant effort at Madison Square Garden on Sunday before falling, 68-63, to #2 Syracuse (10-0). After trailing by 12 points at halftime, the Red Storm found themselves in the lead in the final minutes of the second half.
But it wasn't enough.
Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair scored 21 points, 11 of which came during the critical stages of the second half, to catapult his Orange to a victory. His corner jumper with three minutes remaining gave Syracuse a 4-point lead, saving Jim Boeheim's squad from an upset loss at the hands of St. John's.
Tyler Ennis also scored an impressive 21 points and Jerami Grant added 14 in the Orange's win.
As expected, the Garden was filled with high energy from the start of the game. Thousands of fans dressed in either orange or red packed the "World's Most Famous Arena," who welcomed a crowd of 16,357 on Sunday.
JaKarr Sampson began the game on a quick start for the Red Storm, scoring the team's first six points. The Red Storm's ball movement was solid early on, getting some high percentage looks against the Orange's famously tough zone defense.
After a promising start, Syracuse's length starting creating mismatches for St. John's. The Storm began to look stagnant offensively.
Syracuse was solid on the offensive end throughout the first half, notably charged by the play of freshman guard Tyler Ennis and senior forward C.J. Fair. In fact, it was Ennis who took control of the game midway through the first half, seeming poised and in control in his first game at the Garden.
After making effective defensive adjustments, the Orange smothered St. John's and dominated the final 12 minutes of the first half. They led the Red Storm, 39-27, at halftime.
Harrison scored 7 points in the first three minutes of the second half, but Syracuse continued to counter with baskets on the other end. The Red Storm kept fighting, as they cut the Syracuse lead to single digits with a Sampson dunk at the 16:25 mark.
"We saw that we were playing tentatively in the first half," Harrison said. "Coach [Lavin] emphasized moving the ball, and I thought we did a better job in the second half."
In fact, Sampson seemed to be on a mission in the second half. A transition dunk and a fadeaway jumper pulled St. John's within just 4 points with 13 minutes remaining, but Sampson had to sit a minute later when he committed his fourth foul.
Yet even as Sampson sat, St. John's chipped away. Freshman guard Rysheed Jordan finally emerged for the Red Storm, hitting three consecutive free throws to tie the game at 53-53 with 9:16 left.
"[Jordan] is a really good player," Boeheim said afterwards. "I wish we didn't foul him when he was shooting a three because he's not really a good perimeter shooter, but he gets to the basket very well."
Orlando Sanchez converted an and-one in transition that gave St. John's a 60-58 lead. Syracuse quickly recaptured the lead when Ennis drove through the Storm's defense for a lay-in. Each possession made fans hold their breath, each possession had meaning.
The Red Storm seemed ready to pull off the upset.
Then Sampson missed two critical free throws at the 3:12 mark , which was subsequently followed by the gut-punching C.J. Fair jumper, giving Syracuse a 64-60 lead and essentially sealing it for the Orange.
[C.J.] has always been a guy who makes big plays for us," Boeheim added. "He often gets overlooked, but he has always been that guy for us."
Sampson finished with 12 points on 6-11 shooting.
"It's kind of tough [to come back into the game after sitting with fouls]," Sampson said, "Those two missed free throws had something to do with that. That was a turn of the momentum."
St. John's held Trevor Cooney, Syracuse's second-leading scorer, scoreless.
"They did an unbelievable job on Trevor," Boeheim said. "He could not get any shots. Harrison did a great job guarding him."
Despite Cooney's quiet game, Syracuse shot 52% from the field, while St. John's shot just 35% including only making one of 17 attempts (6%) from three-point range.
"I felt that Syracuse played 24 good minutes and we played 16 [good minutes]," Lavin said. "In the last four minutes, Syracuse got looks and got stops, while we forced shots and turned the ball away. When you put that all together, that is what separates Syracuse."
The key to Syracuse's success on Sunday was very much focused on how well they would be able to avoid the Johnnies' biggest strength: blocked shots. They did so quite well, getting only four of their 46 shot attempts blocked. Chris Obekpa had three of those blocks.
If this game was truly a battle for who could more properly claim the title "New York's Team," Syracuse can bring those bragging rights back upstate until the two teams meet again next year at the Carrier Dome.
"We're not into moral victories," Harrison said. "We'll learn from it, and we'll move on."
St. John's will be back in action this Wednesday at Carnesecca Arena when they welcome San Francisco to Queens.
- St. John's vs. #2 Syracuse preview: A Garden clash for New York bragging rights?
- Time Machine: St. John's vs. Syracuse
- Rafael Diaz invited to MLS' January pre-draft 2014 Combine
- "It's not the same" - is there still passion for the St. John's/ Syracuse Rivalry?
- St. John's vs. Fordham final score: Johnnies put on offensive display, dominate Rams 104-58