Syracuse Basketball: Benny Williams was terrific; zone defense was dismal

Syracuse basketball, Benny Williams (Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
Syracuse basketball, Benny Williams (Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports) /

Sophomore forward Benny Williams returned to the starting line-up on Saturday in the early evening as Syracuse basketball played at long-time rival Pittsburgh.

And Williams certainly made the most of his opportunity. Meanwhile, the Orange shot extremely well from both the field as a whole and from beyond the arc, but the team’s zone defense was simply awful.

The Panthers entered this Atlantic Coast Conference affair averaging about 75 points per game, which is solid, but not spectacular. But inside the Petersen Events Center, before an extremely boisterous crowd, Pitt nearly hit the century mark versus the ‘Cuse.

For the third conference clash in a row, Syracuse basketball not only lost, but the Orange also got absolutely dismantled. On Saturday, Pittsburgh rained down from deep, and the Panthers soundly defeated the ‘Cuse, 99-82.

Syracuse basketball got a tremendous performance from sophomore forward Benny Williams.

After losing his starting spot earlier in the 2022-23 season, Williams returned to the starting rotation against Pittsburgh. Freshman forward Justin Taylor also started for the first time in his young Orange tenure.

Fellow freshmen forwards Chris Bell and Maliq Brown, on the other hand, were not among the starting five. Bell didn’t play at all on Saturday, and Brown only logged six minutes.

Taylor didn’t produce much of anything. Another freshman, guard/wing Quadir Copeland, earned 23 minutes of run, registering six points, three rebounds and one assist.

The top-three scorers for Syracuse basketball throughout the 2022-23 season, senior shooting guard Joe Girard III, freshman point guard Judah Mintz and senior center Jesse Edwards, were all good.

Edwards had 17 points and seven rebounds. Mintz, often taunted by the Pitt crowd because at one time he was verbally committed to the Panthers, generated 16 points and six assists. Girard scored 19 points and dished out three assists.

But for the ‘Cuse (16-13, 9-9 in the ACC), the star of the night in this setback was clearly Benny Williams. He played 34 minutes, connected on 8-of-15 from the field and 5-of-6 from 3-point land, and finished with a career-high 24 points along with nine boards.

For a young man who struggled with his shot a stanza ago, Benny Williams sure looked good from beyond the arc versus the Panthers (21-8, 14-4).

Normally, one would hope that scoring 82 points would prove sufficient enough to come out on top. But as has been the case in other recent blowout losses, namely to Duke on the Hill and at Clemson a few days ago, the Orange’s perimeter defense and rebounding are a huge, huge problem.

On Saturday, Syracuse basketball actually had a higher shooting percentage than the Panthers from the field and from deep. The issue is that Pitt was able to make 16 shots from 3-point range, as compared to nine for the ‘Cuse.

Second-chance points hurt the Orange in this ACC battle. The Panthers corralled 18 offensive rebounds to just 20 defensive rebounds for Syracuse basketball.

Pittsburgh players also took stellar care of the ball, only committing five turnovers, while the ‘Cuse had 11 miscues. In this decisive victory, the Panthers had large advantages in both second-chance points and points scored off of turnovers.

With Virginia and Miami both falling on Saturday, Pittsburgh at this juncture holds a slight edge for the No. 1 spot in the league standings.

So losing to a good Panthers team on their own turf, where Pitt has been strong in 2022-23, is understandable. However, in the Orange’s last three games, it has gotten smoked by 22 points, 18 points and 17 points.

I love my alma mater, but that’s embarrassing. Syracuse basketball has two regular-season contests left, both at home, against Georgia Tech this Tuesday, Feb. 28, and then on Saturday, March 4, versus Wake Forest.

It would be nice if the ‘Cuse could get back on track and sweep that pair of encounters at the JMA Wireless Dome, to give Syracuse basketball a little momentum heading into the upcoming ACC Tournament.

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