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For openers, a flying start for Syracuse hoops

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BUFFALO — This looked like the Syracuse University team that started 25-0. Not the one that lost five of its past seven games and seemed to drop below the national radar.

The Orange moved the ball well on offense, taking and making good shots. It also reacted so quickly on defense that the opposing team simply could not run its offense very well.

Those were the ultimate reasons third-seeded SU rolled over No. 14 Western Michigan, 77-53 Thursday in an NCAA Tournament second-round game of the South Region at First Niagara Center.

SU (28-5) made it look easy for a change, racing out to a 19-point halftime lead and playing with more confidence and resolve than Jim Boeheim’s club had in quite awhile, after hitting the skids at the end of the regular season.

“This is the team we knew we could be again,’’ said SU senior C.J. Fair, who contributed a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “It was a complete team effort, with everybody doing their jobs. That’s something we need to do every game from now on.’’

Sophomore guard Trevor Cooney broke out of a prolonged shooting slump, hitting four 3-pointers and leading the Orange with 18 points.

Sophomore forward Jerami Grant and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis each added 16 points for the balanced Orange, which plays No. 11 Dayton in Saturday’s third round.

Dayton knocked off No. 6 Ohio State 60-59 in the opening game.

Boeheim, winning his 53rd NCAA tourney game, said SU’s strong effort on both ends of the court was a great sign as the Orange played with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.

“Our defense was really good right from the beginning,’’ said Boeheim, whose club held the Broncos (23-10) to just 34.7 percent shooting. “We really worked hard on defense this week in practice, making sure our rotations were right for all of their shooters. I thought out guards really did a nice job of disrupting what they wanted to do, and our big guys made their presence felt.’’

And with Cooney finally getting untracked from the perimeter, it just opened up so many possibilities on offense and gave extra room for the rest of the team to operate.

“Making some shots early always gives you a lift,’’ Boeheim said. “Trevor has remained aggressive even though he hasn’t made a lot of shots lately. I thought we screened better for him, and he did some nice things off the dribble as well.’’

Said Fair: “When Trevor is making shots, it just gives the team so much more energy. It opens up a lot of space for the rest of us because the defense has to react to him. Our offense runs so much more easily when he’s connecting.’’

Cooney triggered a 10-0 run with a pair of 3-pointers as SU built a 17-4 lead just eight minutes into the game. That after missing his first shot from behind the arc.

“Both of them were really clean looks. It’s always nice to see one go in early,’’ Cooney said. “The guys found me in good spots, and in rhythm. But, really, I didn’t feel much different than the past several games when I had some of the same looks but missed.’’

After Western Michigan trimmed the lead to 19-11, a Grant jam on a feed from Michael Gbinije kicked off a 14-2 Orange spurt. That was highlighted by an Ennis 3-pointer and a spinning layup that boosted the margin to 33-13.

Fair’s flying follow of a missed Ennis shot in the final seconds gave the Orange its third biggest halftime lead of the season, 40-21.

SU shot 51.7 percent from the floor (15-for-29) in the first half and held a resounding 16-9 rebound edge. The Orange also turned 11 Western Michigan turnovers into 13 points in scoring the most points in a half since putting up 54 vs. Binghamton on Dec. 7.

Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said although he thought his team was prepared to attack the SU 2-3 zone, it did not come to fruition.

“When you make a mistake against them, they make you pay,’’ Hawkins said. “The second half we had only two (turnovers), and they only outscored us by five. That tells you all you need to know. We just ran into a buzzsaw today.’’

“Our goal was to not let them get comfortable (against the zone),’’ Fair said. “Our rotations from side to side were a lot quicker than they have been. And our guards got their hands on so many passes it made it easy for our inside guys to pick them off.’’

SU was credited with only eight steals, but had three times that many deflections.

“Because they are so long and athletic, they make you second-guess your passes and that leads to turnovers,’’ said Western Michigan’s leading scorer David Brown, who was held to nine points on 2-for-12 shooting. “We were too hesitant getting the ball into the middle of the zone until it was too late.’’

“We wanted to get out on Brown and make him take difficult shots,’’ Boeheim said. “And I thought Rakeem (Christmas) and Baye (Moussa Keita) did a terrific job defending their big guy.’’

Six-foot-11 Bronco center Shayne Whittington managed five first-half points and finished with 11, but was not really a factor.

Grant scored eight consecutive points during a two-minute stretch of the second half as SU built its lead to as much as 26 points. Boeheim then emptied his bench and even played his four walk-ons in the waning minutes.


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