Posted: 2/16/2014 7:34:46 AM
For two years, Rakeem Christmas has been a footnote in his team's success. On Saturday night, he saved Syracuse's perfect record in an otherwise lackluster offensive performance.
Before the final buzzer sounded and Syracuse pulled off another inexplicable victory.
Before C.J. Fair put the Orange ahead with 12 seconds left.
And before Tyler Ennis rushed up the court for the winning basket just as he did three nights before.
The ball was in the hands of Rakeem Christmas.
"They were trying to get to the corner. (Kyle Washington) in the high post was the only one up top," Christmas said. "So I figured they were going to throw the ball to him and I just jumped in."
When Christmas stole the ball with about twenty seconds left, the Orange trailed by one. It was the key play in Syracuse's 56-55 win over the NC State Wolfpack just as Christmas was the key player throughout the night. The junior center had 14 points – one shy of a career high – to go along with 12 rebounds, seven blocks and one BIG steal.
Earlier in the game, the Orange forced a turnover near the sidelines, but didn't convert on offense. Again, the Wolfpack bunched in the corner and Syracuse pounced on them. But this time the Orange made the most of the opportunity, with Fair making the game-winning basket on the other end of the floor.
"If we trapped anybody in the corner, especially a point guard as short as (Tyler Lewis) is, he couldn’t see over so we knew he was going to have to throw the ball," Jerami Grant said. "And he threw the ball straight to Rak."
It turned out to be the cherry-on-top of one of Christmas' best games this season.
"He was good the whole game," Jim Boeheim said. "He’s learning to stay out of foul trouble. He made a couple blocks where he covered the middle pretty well."
With DaJuan Coleman out for the year and Baye Keita out temporarily with a knee injury, Christmas' ability to defend without fouling has become increasingly important. He not only managed to stay out of foul trouble, but played aggressive defense and set a career-high in blocked shots. His imposing presence under the basket felt similar to the play of Fab Melo two seasons ago.
"It definitely makes the 2-3 a little easier," Trevor Cooney said. "At the top of the key, if you make a mistake and the guy goes by, you know that they have to face Rak."
Throughout the season, Syracuse has gotten very little offensive production out of its centers. Coleman showed the most potential, but hasn't played since the beginning of January. Christmas came into the game averaging 5.6 points. Keita, meanwhile, scores 2.0 ppg.
But with the Orange struggling to score, Rakeem's offense at the center position was crucial. Syracuse went 35 percent from the field and needed every basket it could get. Christmas went from 4-7, making him the only Orange player to shoot over 50 percent. Equally as important, he shot 6-6 from the free throw line.
"We definitely needed it tonight. Everybody else wasn’t shooting the ball well," Grant said. "It was a tough game for everybody, except him."
Christmas played with more confidence than we're accustomed to seeing. And for good reason – without his two possible alternatives, Boeheim had no choice but to keep Christmas on the floor. It gave him Christmas the flexibility in his shot selection. He even made a mid-range baseline jumper two minutes into the game. Christmas said he's been working in practice on his jumper and will continue to take that shot, if given the opportunity.
In the past, the criticism on Christmas has been that he's played too soft. Despite having a 6-foot-9 and 250 pound frame, he hasn't always been so physical in the paint. That wasn't the case against the Wolfpack. He set the tone by throwing three monster dunks by the midpoint of the first half, which electrified the crowd. He almost had a fourth, but was fouled near the basket.
"I’m trying to be more aggressive offensively," he said. "That’s one thing coach wants me to do and that’s something I was trying to do the whole summer."
After the game, Grant, Ennis and Fair complemented Christmas on his ability to improve. With the injuries at center, that improvement has turned from a luxury to a requirement. On this night, it was the difference between winning and losing.
"Each game, he’s getting better and he’s an important aspect to our team," Fair said. "When he plays like that, it gives us an edge over opponents."
Added Fair, "If he doesn’t play the way he does tonight, we don’t win."
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