My, my, my- what a game on Saturday at the Prudential Center. The Syracuse Orange were surprisingly only a 7.5- point favorite coming in, a figure that I would have doubled. But the Pirates were able to stick to the Orange throughout the game.
Here are the thoughts from a feel-good loss:
- Pope and Robinson
Easily the two best players on the floor for either side on Saturday, Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson both had their best efforts of the season. Robinson was a factor throughout, while Pope had a MONSTER second half (14 PTS, 14 REB), but combined they outrebounded the biggest team in the conference BY THEMSELVES (Robinson had 10 REB for a 34-32 edge on the Orange). They shot a combined 12-23 from the field and grabbed offensive board after offensive board, keeping possessions alive for Seton Hall, whose guards couldn't find the bottom of the net all day long. The reason the Pirates had any offense going was the play of Pope and Robinson, and for that I commend not only Herb and Jeff themselves, but also the coaching staff for making getting the ball inside their primary game plan. Excellent job by all parties involved on this front.
So what was the issue on Saturday? Seton Hall's guards just couldn't get anything to drop. These were not heavily contested shots or bad shots, but many of them were open shots that were just flat-out missed. It's nothing to panic about, just something that will work itself out. The Pirates shot 0-17 from deep in the first half, several of those a hair away from going in. They did make 3-9 in the second half as they made a more concerted effort to dump the ball inside to Pope and Robinson, though. The Pirates played very well, but just couldn't make a jumper. It happens sometimes.
Oh, man how about that first half? The Orange had only 20 points at halftime and were shooting about 30 percent from the field, about 15-17% UNDER their season average. Yes, the Pirates had only 19 points themselves, but the defense in that first half was tremendous. Everything I said they needed to do before the game- be alert, watch for cutters, help out on drives- they did. As bad of an offensive display it was, that's how good of a defensive display it was. And it did a lot to keep the Syracuse fans uncommonly quiet in the opening 20 minutes.
The announced attendance was 10,862. There were people in the seats behind the baskets, and in almost all the suites. It was a charged atmosphere that was almost half orange, and that made the competing "Let's Go Orange" and "Let's Go Pirates" chants elevate it to "Big Game Atmosphere" status. The student section, who I've slammed in the past for not being enthusiastic or even showing up at times was much better. They were into the game all game, and chanted in the second half for the very first time this year. It was a thrill to be a part of that atmosphere again, and calling a game in that atmosphere was a special experience.
The Pirates lost, but this didn't feel like a loss to me. They hung with the 4th- ranked team in the nation neck-and-neck, even coming tantalizingly close to upsetting them after recovering from a 14-point deficit with 5:57 remaining. That comeback was all the evidence I need to see that shows this team still has a spark. Jeremy Hazell visits the doctor in a couple of hours, and if he's cleared to play, Coach Willard said that he could play as early as Wednesday night at DePaul. If Hazell returns this year, Saturday's effort made me optimistic about the rest of the season. The Pirates came out with energy and drive like none we've seen this year, and if you add Hazell's insane scoring ability to energy and drive, you get wins and competitive Big East Basketball. Even if Hazell does not return this year, we have evidence to suggest that this team can compete, and that will lead to good things.