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Syracuse survives Canisius lesson

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SYRACUSE — As Syracuse works its way toward the beginning of its final Big East Conference basketball season in a few weeks, the team is learning some valuable lessons.

One of them is if they don’t come out with energy and enthusiasm, especially on defense, any opponent is capable of giving them a fight. Canisius proved that Saturday night by putting a scare into coach Jim Boeheim’s team for a half before SU’s talent finally prevailed in an 85-61 nonconference victory before 18,120 in the Carrier Dome in the first game of the inaugural Gotham Classic.

Fourth-ranked SU (9-0), which increased the nation’s longest active home winning streak to 28 straight, will be in the spotlight again on Monday when Boeheim attempts to become only the third coach in Division I history to win 900 games when Detroit comes to town.

Seniors James Southerland and Brandon Triche led SU with 21 and 19 points, respectively, as the Orange outscored the Golden Griffins (6-2) by 50-29 in the final 20 minutes after leading only 35-32 at halftime.

Triche said it’s incumbent on the Orange to play both halves with the same intensity as the season progresses.

“It just took us awhile tonight, for some reason, to get into a rhythm on offense and defense,’’ Triche said. “The first half we let them get in the lane too easily, we didn’t close out well on their shooters and they beat us on the boards. The second half we adapted to their style a lot better and just communicated like we always do.’’

Canisius, which was off to its best start since 1973-74 and had won three straight on the road, played the Orange just about even the opening half, never allowing SU to put together one of its patented runs.

But the Orange looked like a different team as the second half began, using a 12-3 run to increase the lead to 47-35 four minutes in, and led by double digits the rest of the way.

“Once our offense started clicking, so did our defense,’’ said Southerland, who scored 16 of his points in the second half. “Brandon and Michael (Carter-Williams) really got us going by penetrating their defense better and getting us a lot of good looks.’’

Carter-Williams had just one assist the first half, but finished with 14 assists and 12 points for his fourth straight double-double.

“He’s a difference maker,’’ said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “I thought we kept him out of the lane pretty well the first half and slowed them down. But when he started beating us off the dribble, their offense really kicked in. And they have so many weapons you can’t stop them all.’’

Southerland hit a 3-pointer and finished off an alley-oop pass from Triche during SU’s initial second-half run.

He contributed a running scoop shot in the lane, a pull-up 15-footer, another three, and a flying dunk in transition before taking a seat for good.

Since his phenomenal career-high 35-point performance at Arkansas on Nov. 30, which included 9-for-13 on 3-pointers, Southland had cooled off considerably.

In the next three games and the first 10 minutes tonight, Southerland had missed his last 11 3-pointers. But despite his 3-point slump, the 6-foot-8 native of the Bronx had found other ways to contribute offensively and defensively.

“I’ve been working more on the mid-range shots and doing things off the dribble because teams are now defending me a lot farther out,’’ said Southerland, who finished 9-for-14 from the floor Saturday and 3 of 6 on 3-pointers. “I’ve had some of the same shots I got at Arkansas, but they’ve been just off. After I made that first one tonight (with 6 minutes left in the first half), it was a sense of relief.’’

Boeheim said Southerland “was being knocked off his spots just a little bit’’ the last few games. “Tonight he settled into the shot better,” he said. “But he’s continued to excel on the boards (5 rebounds Saturday) and do a lot of the little things like pressure the wings.’’

Carter-Williams said Southerland, who played 32 minutes, “just gives us that explosive offensive player off the bench that every team needs. He’s going to be a factor even if he isn’t hitting all of those long-range shots.’’

Boeheim credited Canisius for slowing the pace the first half and making SU play their game. “Our defense the first 10 minutes of the second half was probably as good as it’s been all season, and then we started executing a lot better on offense, too,’’ he said.

Billy Baron, the coach’s son, and Isaac Sosa led Canisius with 15 points apiece.

Boeheim, pressed as to what 900 wins will mean to him, said “nothing more than another victory. I’m just happy I’m still here after 37 years and able to coach this great game.’’

But Triche said, “Monday will be an incredible night for coach and our program if we win. Not many players will ever be able to say they were on the court for somebody’s 900th win.’’

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