- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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CINCINNATI -- Full speed or slow motion, rewind or fast-forward, no matter how Syracuse watched its game tape from Saturday's loss at Notre Dame, it didn’t get better.
“We watched that film for one hour straight,’’ senior Scoop Jardine said. “We gave them that game. No disrespect to Notre Dame, but if we played them again, we’d win by 20.’’
Yet when Cincinnati threatened to debut Return of the Orange Horror, knocking down four 3-pointers before the first TV timeout and building a 15-6 advantage, Syracuse never blinked, instead eventually restoring its winning order with a 60-53 victory Monday in the Queen City.
A lot of people once questioned if the Orange were merely the No. 1 team by default -- convenient winners when the other teams around them lost.
Just how little some folks think of the 21-1 team showed up in this week’s polls. After dropping its first game of the season -- on the road and without starting big man Fab Melo, who is being withheld reportedly due to academic issues -- Syracuse tumbled from No. 1 to No. 4 in the coaches poll.
So here’s the thing about the Orange. They might not always be pretty. Forced into a half-court offense, they can be downright tedious if not altogether lost at times. They spent more than 20 minutes searching for a made 3-pointer against the Bearcats.
In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Syracuse earned the inglorious distinction of becoming the first team to win a game this season despite shooting 25 percent or worse from the 3-point line and 33 percent or worse from the free throw line. The other 15 teams to shoot that badly? They were 0-15 with an average loss of 21 points.
The Cuse, however, is nothing if not resilient, tough and deep -- three traits that ought to carry it a long way.
“I haven’t seen this team play half that bad -- a quarter that bad,’’ Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the Notre Dame loss. “But I was very gratified that tonight. We took that first punch in the mouth and we never wavered. Lesser teams, it would have been over. It didn’t even faze these guys.’’
Nor did the second jab, the one the Bearcats delivered in the second half. Fueled by its first sellout crowd of the season, Cincinnati turned a 28-25 halftime deficit into a 34-30 lead in a hurry. Boeheim called a timeout, which seemed to settle his team down.
Kris Joseph did the rest. The senior, who has the athleticism and skill to dominate but who can spend too much time blending in with the wallpaper, took over -- scoring six of the Orange’s next 10 and pulling Syracuse to within 42-40.
And then, just when the Orange looked in danger of completing a game without a 3-pointer for the first time since 1995, Jardine drained one from the arc and Brandon Triche followed up with another.
“We needed this one. We needed it,’’ said Joseph, who finished with a team-high 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
Cincinnati could have used it, too. A week ago, UC was soaring, winners of 10 of its last 11. Now it’s lost two in a row, which in ordinary circumstances wouldn’t be a bad thing. But in the wild and wacky world of the Big East, two losses sends the Bearcats to the crowded middle of the standings.
And like Syracuse after Notre Dame, they will be left to wonder what if.
“If you’ve got an opportunity to close out a game, you’ve got to take it,’’ said Cincinnati's Yancy Gates, who finished with 16 points and 10 boards. “Because if the other team gets it, nine times out of 10, they’re going to take it.’’
Certainly the Orange was fueled by their own self-loathing. Asked if he was more angry or disappointed about losing to the Irish, Jardine chose all of the above.
Undefeated would have been difficult, especially in the Big East. No one in a Syracuse uniform would argue that. Losing a game is palatable.
But losing a game that way? Not so much.
It was a hard smack of reality for a team that had been coasting prior to visiting South Bend. Syracuse had been thrashing opponents, winning by double digits in the majority of those 20 games.
Adversity stayed away, too. The players put the Bernie Fine scandal in the rearview mirror long ago, rolling along without a care in the world.
And then last week the university announced Melo would not make the two-game trip to Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Without the big man, the Orange were different, disjointed. He wasn’t there to block or challenge shots, allowing the Irish to get inside with ease. And the inside game, as it always does, opened things outside. The Irish drained eight 3s.
“Not having Fab in that game, we didn’t adjust well,’’ Triche said.
Against the Bearcats, the Orange made the adjustment -- or more appropriately, Rakeem Christmas did. The highly touted freshman was a nonfactor against the Irish, scoring just two points to go with four rebounds.
“He’s more of center than a forward; he’s probably better at center,’’ Boeheim said. “It takes time for guys to learn. It took Rick [Jackson] two or three years. This league is tough for freshmen in the middle.’’
But Christmas, Boeheim said, is learning. The curve is evident in his boxscore. He stood tall against Gates, pulling down nine critical rebounds as well as three blocked shots.
“We went to that Notre Dame game thinking it would be easy,’’ Christmas said. “No games on the road are easy. We know we have to play hard every game. We don’t want to lose anymore.’’
Nor do the Orange want to watch that particular home movie ever again.