SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Jim Boeheim has known it since the season started, and two straight nail biters only has reaffirmed it: his top-ranked Syracuse Orange may still be unbeaten, but they’re certainly not invincible.
“I think everybody’s vulnerable,” Boeheim said on the weekly Atlantic Coast Conference teleconference.
“I know that you can lose against anybody you play. We’ve been in those situations, and we’ve been able to win those games.
“You know, it’s one thing being in close games. It’s another thing being in the type of jeopardy we’ve gotten ourselves into in a couple of games.”
Syracuse (25-0, 12-0 ACC), which faces last-place Boston College (6-19, 2-10) at home on Wednesday night, has 10 wins by eight points or fewer, and the Orange’s combined margin of victory in four of the past five games was 11 points: 91-89 in overtime against then-No. 17 Duke, 61-55 over Notre Dame, and 56-55 over North Carolina State, all at home; and 58-56 at No. 25 Pittsburgh in the Petersen Events Center.
The Panthers had been 9-0 against top-five teams in the 12-year history of the building — until Orange freshman point guard Tyler Ennis hit a 35-footer at the final buzzer.
Not much margin for error, and yet Syracuse, along with only No. 3 Wichita State (27-0), remains perfect.
The Orange managed to beat the Wolfpack on Saturday night in spite of some big mistakes in the final 62 seconds, three by Ennis, who had been virtually flawless the entire season at the end of games.
Ennis fouled Ralston Turner on a 3-point attempt, and Turner made all three free throws to put N.C. State up by two points. Ennis then missed a layup with 45 seconds to play and committed a turnover with 15 seconds to go.
The defense saved the game. Center Rakeem Christmas stole a pass out of a trap in the left corner and C.J. Fair finished the decisive play with a layup in transition with 6.7 seconds on the clock — off a pass from Ennis.
“I don’t think there’s any way of figuring out college basketball,” Boeheim said. “We’ve been in those situations and have been able to win those games. The last game was the first game we made some bad plays down the stretch. We still were able to find a way to win. I think this team deserves a lot of credit for making those plays.”
And for finding a way to win without a full lineup.
Before the season, Boeheim said his front line would be a strong point with Christmas, senior Baye Moussa Keita and burly sophomore Dajuan Coleman manning the middle.
But the 6-foot-9, 280-pound Coleman saw only three minutes of ACC action before being lost for the season with an injury to his left leg that required surgery, and the 6-10 Keita, the Orange’s most athletic defender in the middle of Boeheim’s 2-3 zone defense, has missed the past two games with a sprained right knee, leaving Christmas to carry the bulk of the load.
That’s turned into a blessing in disguise. With more responsibility and more playing time, the junior has started to display his considerable talents and was the difference against the Wolfpack with 14 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and that one steal in 35 minutes, easily the best game of his career.
“If he didn’t play well, we don’t win,” Fair said. “His play is going up each game. He’s getting more and more confidence.”
“He won the game,” Boeheim said. “He was the key factor, and that’s the first time that he’s been the key factor in a game since he’s been here.”
The 17th victory of this special season came on the road against Boston College a little more than a month ago. The Orange trailed 51-46 with a little more than 10 minutes to play, then took advantage of their size inside during a 16-1 run over a span of less than four minutes and won 69-59.
Whether the Orange’s impressive unbeaten streak continues matters little in the scheme of things.
“You don’t get any trophies that matter in the regular season,” Boeheim said. “The only thing that matters is how you do at the end of the year — the real end of the year.”
The Eagles come to town with heavy hearts and a good dose of determination. Longtime basketball media contract and sports information assistant Dick Kelley died last Thursday after a two-year battle with ALS. His funeral was Tuesday and the team, which often visited his apartment, will be wearing “DK” patches on their uniforms.