Two nights after the best game of a great 2013-14 season, played in front of the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history -- a brilliant back-and-forth affair so good it stunned Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Duke Mike Krzyzewski, the two winningest coaches ever to roam Division I sidelines, into awed reverence -- Syracuse responded the way anyone who reaches that kind of sheer adrenaline high is bound to. With symptoms of withdrawal.
C.J. Fair, so imperious Saturday night, shot 2-of-13. Jerami Grant was 3-of-8. Tyler Ennis finished with six points on 2-of-5 shooting. Rakeem Christmas shot 50 percent but attempted just two field goals, so that’s hardly a distinction. Notre Dame arrived in Syracuse 12-10 on the season, a team largely decimated by the season-ending suspension of Jerian Grant (Jerami’s brother) for academic reasons, with matchup woes all over the floor. But the Fighting Irish defended and took care of the ball well enough to push Syracuse hard on its own floor on a night when pretty much every player in an Orange uniform looked out of sorts, drained and hollow.
Well, except Trevor Cooney.
Cooney was none of those things. Cooney was locked in. Cooney was energetic, physical, engaged. Cooney shot 11-of-15 with nine 3-pointers. The rest of the Orange made 10 field goals total -- Cooney outdid them by one on his own. His 33 points were more than half of the 61 Syracuse needed to hold off the pesky, muddying Irish. It is no stretch to say he singlehandedly saved Syracuse’s chase for regular-season perfection.
He also provided a helpful manual for just why this 22-0 Syracuse team is profoundly difficult to beat.
Fair has been the Orange’s workhorse all season. After his 28 points on 12-20 shooting against Duke on Saturday -- a relentless barrage that buoyed Syracuse as the Blue Devils knocked down 3-pointer after 3-pointer -- Boeheim remarked that Fair had morphed into a great player in the matter of 45 minutes. But he was already really, really good. He played his worst game of the season Monday, and Syracuse still won.
Ennis has been the steadiest Orange all season. He is a preternaturally talented guard, but his greatest strength has been his unshakeable calm, his consistency. Since the start of the season, he has been scoring the ball efficiently, finding teammates for buckets on 32.2 percent of his possessions, rarely turning the ball over, and generating steals. And on Monday night, he played his least assertive game of the season (he still had eight assists and six rebounds, so calling it his “worst” would be harsh), and Syracuse still won.
They won because, oh yeah, Cooney is awfully good, too.
Despite shooting 42 percent from 3-point territory on the season and posting an offensive rating in the mid-130s, the sophomore shooting guard has received less attention than either of the Orange stars. In January, that has mostly made sense: After a brilliantly hot shooting start, ACC opponents have focused more of their perimeter attention on Cooney, refusing to leave him alone on the perimeter even when Ennis and Fair and Grant probe and muscle their way to the rim. In Syracuse’s first three ACC games, Cooney’s 3-point shooting was bad: 2-of-12 at Miami, 3-of-8 versus Virginia Tech, 2-of-12 again versus North Carolina. He was 2-of-5 against Boston College, 2-of-8 against Pitt, 0-5 at Wake Forest. Even Saturday night, Cooney’s shooting was hardly why Syracuse beat Duke: He attempted just two long-range shots.
Of course, Cooney was helping his team win even when he wasn’t making shots: He was drawing defensive attention, but he was also playing great, disruptive defense on the other end: Cooney forces 4.5 steals every 100 possessions, 16th-most in the country. He’s far from a one-trick specialist.
But still, he hadn’t had a definitive shooting night since December. On Monday, he had much more than that: He tied a school-record (held by his childhood hero, Gerry McNamara) for most 3s in a game. He singlehandedly shot his team to a win it otherwise probably didn’t deserve.
This is the thing about Syracuse, made all the more remarkable by the talent Boeheim lost this summer (guards Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche, as well as wing James Southerland): There is always someone there to beat you. This weekend, against Clemson, nine-tenths of the Orange roster might struggle, Cooney included, but Grant might go off. Or maybe it’ll be Ennis. Or Fair. Or ... well, you get the point.
Syracuse had the night of its life Saturday, and on Monday it felt the after-effects. But because Cooney shot so well, and Boeheim has so very many weapons at his disposal, it managed to escape with a win anyway.
How do you get past the first week of February without a loss, as the Orange have? Nights like Cooney’s are a pretty good place to start.