It's a rare trait for a team when its best player is also its most experienced player, too. Yet, that's exactly what C.J. Fair is for the Syracuse Orange -- the go-to senior. Fair came up big when his team needed him most, hitting two baseline jumpers from about 18 feet away to keep the St. John's Red Storm at bay, and helping the Orange to a 68-63 win in Madison Square Garden.
In fact, until Fair's buckets with under four minutes to play, it looked like the Red Storm were about to get the much-needed win they have been seeking. After failing to knock off top-25 Wisconsin in November, the Johnnies battled the Orange until the final buzzer.
The Orange (10-0) jumped out on St. John's early, cruising to a 12 point halftime lead. Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis led Syracuse with 15 points in the first twenty minutes, shooting 4-of-6 from the field. It was yet another slow start for the notoriously groggy Red Storm. And once the deficit grew to 14 early in the second half it looked like St. John's was destined for another loss to its old rival.
But a career high of 13 points, nine of those coming from the free throw line in the second half, from frosh Rysheed Jordan and the usual 21 points from D'Angelo Harrison, who hit three straight big buckets, allowed the Johnnies to shove their way back in the game. For a short time midway through that final stanza the game was a back-and-forth slugfest -- with three ties and four lead changes.
The Red Storm even held Syracuse's second leading Scorer, Trevor Cooney, to zero points. Looking further into the numbers, 56 of Syracuse's 68 points came from three players - Fair (21), Ennis (21) and Jerami Grant (14). With the Garden rocking, from a combination of excited Red Storm fans and nervous Orange fans, and with Gus Johnson screaming away on the Fox Sports 1 broadcast, an upset was brewing.
Then came Fair, hitting those two huge baseline shots. Sure, Harrison is a legit talent, and Steve Lavin's boys showed some real heart in having a chance to upset the nation's second ranked team. But a lot like the rest of the college basketball world, the Red Storm don't have that been-there and done-that senior. Fair finished with 21 points and five rebounds.
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Ennis, playing a lot like an experienced player beyond his years, scored a career high and made all 10 of his free throws.
For St. John's, there will be more wondering what could have been. What could have been if the Red Storm hadn't started so cold, again? A bad trend that has frustrated Lavin all season.
"Syracuse played well for 24 minutes and we only played well for 16. I thought in the first half we were tentative. We were not aggressive or effective in any aspect of play. In the second half we played well enough to rally from behind, but in the last four minutes, Syracuse got good looks at the basket and we did not execute well enough on offense to win."
Another point of frustration for St. John's is what could have been if it hadn't gone cold from the free throw line after taking a 60-58 lead. A fact that may be the toughest to digest for Lavin. His team missed six freebies total, four of those coming in the final minutes of the game. JaKarr Sampson, who scored 12 points, missed two huge free throws with his team trailing by two with just over three minutes to play.
"That's going to kill me. I've been thinking about those since I missed them."
Where the Red Storm may have let the moment get too big for them, Syracuse just turned to Fair to lead the way.
Plus, Syracuse's 2-3 zone will have to get a lot of credit for all of those Red Storm questions. Just a week after shooting the lights out against Fordham, St. John's was held to 37.5 percent shooting from the field, a week after scoring 104 points against the Rams. But the Rams aren't the Orange. Not even close, as the Red Storm made eight less 3-pointers on Sunday against Syracuse than they did against Fordham. Hitting just 1-of-15 from deep for an mind-bending .6 percent.
Really just more of the same when it comes to Syracuse and St. John's. Jim Boeheim's teams have won nine straight against the Red Storm, leading the overall series 51-37. Despite the Orange domination and the Garden being routinely a shade of Orange during their games together, St. John's players talked during the week that New York City their city, not Syracuse's. But another loss renders those comments by the Red Storm just that, talk.
"It hurts to lose but it hurts to lose to Syracuse in particular," Harrison said. "Certain things that you can take away from the last four minutes of the game, that's what we will watch the most."
The Red Storm are back in Queens up next, taking on San Francisco Wednesday night, looking to rebound and to learn from Sunday. Closing out games against top-tier competition takes experience. Syracuse has that intangible, St. John's is still learning.