Pitoniak: Joseph delivers in clutch

  SYRACUSE - For most of the night, Kris Joseph's play was as ugly as those new Nike gray and orange basketball uniforms that, hopefully, will be one-and-done, packed away in moth balls with Nehru jackets and plaid flair pants.

                Syracuse University's senior forward couldn't make a shot to save himself, misfiring on 10 of his first 13 shots as the second-ranked Orange men found themselves in a battle to the finish with a pesky South Florida squad that came into the Carrier Dome riding a four-game win streak and a 10-4 Big East Conference record.

                But despite Josephs' struggles, SU head coach Jim Boeheim wasn't about to give up on him.

                You go to go-to guys even when they are throwing up enough bricks to construct a new dormitory on campus.

                "He told me that great players forget about everything that happened and you just keep playing,'' Joseph recalled afterward. "Coach was very confident in me. He kept coming back to me and my teammates were doing the same."

                And that faith was repaid handsomely down the stretch as Joseph scored seven of SU's final 12 points in a 56-48 win.

                The 6-foot-7, 235-pounder from Montreal had two huge put-backs in the final four minutes. On a night when the Orange men again struggled on the boards (they were out-rebounded 41-31), Joseph aggressively followed up on his misses to ice the Cuse's 28th win in 29 games.

                "I played terrible the whole game until I made those plays,'' he said after a 12-point, 9-rebound effort.

                This is the pattern the Orange men have followed of late. They've gotten off to unnervingly slow starts, they've struggled to put together complete offensive games, they've been dominated on the boards, but they've emerged with victory after victory because they play hellacious defense, don't turn the ball over and come up with some huge baskets during crunch time.

                It hasn't been pretty, but it has been incredibly effective.

                "We don't panic; we don't lose our confidence, no matter how much we might be struggling," Joseph said. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays, and we believe that it's all going to turn out well in the end."

                This was a very strange game - a game where SU showed it could be as explosive as any team in the country with a 26-0 run and a game in which it shot just 35 percent from the field and its starting lineup was held scoreless for the first 12 minutes and 24 seconds.

                If you are looking for key stats, winning stats, try these on for size: SU had nine blocks - six by Fab Melo; 11 steals and just nine turnovers. There was one stretch where the Orange held South Florida without a point for 11 minutes and 22 seconds. And those 26 consecutive points marked the 13th time this season SU has had a run of 10 or more straight points.

                Scoop Jardine hit some key shots on his way to a team-high 15 points and C.J. Fair had his typical fill-up-the-stat sheet night with 13 points, six rebounds, three assists and five steals.

                Add it all up and SU pulls out another down-to-the-wire victory to improve to 18-0 at the Dome.

                "We'd rather not be facing situations like these, but if you look at this game it could be a positive thing, where if we are in a situation like this in the tournament then we'll be ready,'' Joseph said. "We've been in these situations a few times this season. I think it will help us a lot in the long run."

                It no doubt will. But SU will need to get its offense out of first gear if it wants to make a run at the national championship. That means shooting the ball more consistently and hitting the boards better, especially on the offensive end. And it means getting off to better starts.

                March Madness is just around the corner, but two interesting regular-season tests remain. Saturday night the Orange men go on the road to play a Connecticut team that took them to the limit in the Dome before fading in the final five minutes in their Feb. 11 meeting. The Huskies have been erratic, but are talented and could use a victory over the nation's second-ranked team in order to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. The following Saturday SU will host a Louisville team looking to avenge its loss to the Orange nine days ago.

                Good challenges for SU as it prepares for the Big East tournament and the NCAAs.

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