Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s message was clear – get the ball inside.
The Orange certainly heeded his message.
Forward Rick Jackson (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) and center Arinze Onuaku (6-9, 275) combined for 24 points and 17 rebounds as No. 3 seed Syracuse easily dispatched No. 14 seed and NCAA Tournament newcomer Stephen F. Austin 59-44 in opening round South Regional play.
“Coach was saying in the huddle, ‘We’re a bigger, stronger team, let’s pound it down low,’” forward Paul Harris said. “We got it down low.”
Syracuse quickly established its inside presence as Jackson blocked Lumberjack center Matt Kingsley on the first possession.
The Orange brought the ball down the floor and immediately threw it down low to Jackson who found Onuaku for an easy lay-in. On the ensuing possession, Jackson took an entry pass for an emphatic slam, which propelled Syracuse to a 20-4 lead.
The Lumberjacks would never be able to get back within single digits.
“Coach made some good play calls to get them the ball,” guard Jonny Flynn said. “When our big guys are rolling and down there banging and dunking, I don’t think anybody in the country can stop us.”
Syracuse also controlled the glass, outrebounding Stephen F. Austin, 51-32. Harris led the way with 16 rebounds.
The win marked the first time since 2004 Syracuse had won an NCAA Tournament game.
Since winning the National Championship in 2003, the Orange has not gone further than the Sweet 16. In 2005 and 2006, the Orange was upset in the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament by Vermont and Texas A&M, respectively. In the following two seasons, the Orange was relegated to the National Invitation Tournament.
Of the current Orange, only guard Eric Devendorf had seen any NCAA Tournament minutes.
That all changed Friday, as Syracuse won their first NCAA game in five years.
“Ever since I came to Syracuse, I wanted to get into the NCAA Tournament,” Harris said. “I’ve been to the NIT two years in a row and finally got here, and our mission is to win it all.”
The Orange showed no ill effects from the Big East Tournament, which saw them play four games in as many days, including a six overtime thriller against rival Connecticut and then another overtime game against West Virginia the following night. The Orange 2-3 zone stifled and stymied the Lumberjacks, holding them to just 2-for-21 shooting from 3-point land.
Still, Syracuse had problems of its own shooting, as Syracuse went 2-for-16 from downtown. Sharpshooters Andy Rautins and Devendorf were anything but, finishing a combined 1-for-11 from beyond the arc, 3-for-17 overall.
“When Eric and Andy shoot 3 for 17 [from the field], we usually lose by about 15,” Boeheim said. “We were fortunate today to survive a bad shooting performance by those two guys.”
The Orange was without reserve forward Kristof Ongenaet, who had flu-like symptoms. Ongenaet also had a foot injury sustained in practice, but is expected to be ready Sunday when the Orange face No. 6 seed Arizona State, which defeated No. 11 seed Temple.
“I wanted to try to keep him out if I could,” Boeheim said. “Fortunately we were able to.”
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