By Mary Cunningham
Did Villanova take Syracuse too lightly?
After all, the 7th-ranked Cats needed an overtime on Saturday to knock off the unranked Orange 82-77 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Villanova coach Jay Wright will say that any foe can win no matter what their ranking, especially one like Syracuse that has been Nova’s great archrival from the early days of the Big East.
“We made some assumptions about them that didn’t work,” Wright acknowledged after the Wildcats escaped with an 82-77 overtime victory thanks to 14 extra free throws and an unlikely five-points in 17-seconds closing stretch.
“We like to get out and pressure people and get after them,” Wright said. “We got after them and if you do that, and you don’t do it really hard. … they just took the ball to the basket. They were getting to the rim at will. That’s smart on their part.”
Syracuse (6-4) earned assists on 13 of its 17 first-half baskets and the Orange’s competent response to Villanova’s full-court press resulted in a season-best 43-point first half for Syracuse.
Villanova was forced to back off its pressure defense and try a different approach. Syracuse still finished with a relatively-high 19 turnovers, but far more came in half-court sets than facing full-court pressure.
Wright was pleased about the job Dylan Ennis did defending Kaleb Joseph, but the SU freshman cut his turnovers in half from the previous game and was particularly good early on.
“One thing he did a great job of doing was pressuring Kaleb Joseph,” Wright said. “He really got after him full court. They did a great job attacking our press in the first half so we had to get out of it in the second half. but Dylan was able to get out and pressure him one-on-one.”
In the first half, when Syracuse played its best, Boeheim answered Villanova’s press by asking Syracuse small forward Michael Gbinije to bring the ball up the floor more often.
Gbinije took advantage with 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists. All Gbinije’s assists came in the first half and so did seven of Joseph’s 10.
It wasn’t enough for Syracuse to leave with a road win over the No. 7 team in the country, but Boeheim said it was the best he’s seen the Orange play and it was a small step forward for this year’s version.
“It was really unusual going into this game,” Wright said. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, you should handle them.’ … They’re a good team, man. Their three losses were to good teams. They’re good. And they played well. They played really well.”