It wasn’t always pretty, but Syracuse emerged from the Maui Invitational as the tournament champion after a 74-67 win over No. 18-ranked Baylor thanks in large part to a clutch performance from senior C.J. Fair, which went a long way towards earning the Orange forward the tournament’s MVP award.
Syracuse learned a lot about itself in its three games in Maui, developing an identity with its versatile forwards like Fair and Jerami Grant, and talented but inexperienced guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney. Against a big, athletic, hot-shooting team like Baylor, the Orange put together one of their best overall performances of the year to earn the win and stay unbeaten all-time in three appearances at the Maui Invitational.
The Orange jumped out to an early lead, and after a brief lead by the Bears at 16-14, Grant and Fair keyed a big Syracuse run that put them ahead for good. The Bears pulled to within four points late in the second half, but the game was never really in question despite some outstanding perimeter shooting and offensive rebounding by Baylor.
The biggest reason for that was the way Fair came up with a big basket time after time whenever Baylor tried to overcome the Orange lead. The senior from Baltimore was fantastic in the second half, knocking down jumpers and attacking the rim on his way to 24 points, 14 of which came in the second half. Tonight, he showed why he was selected as the preseason ACC Player of the Year.
Fair has had some struggles knocking down shots of late, but he was lights out tonight. As players like Grant, Ennis, and Cooney continue to improve as offensive weapons, it will only serve to take some of the scoring pressure off of him and make him that much more effective.
Speaking of Ennis and Grant in particular, Orange fans have to be thrilled with their breakout performances in Maui, though the joy has to be at least a little bittersweet. The dynamic, super athletic Grant was already on the radar of NBA scouts, and this only helped his stock. Ennis, who had struggled a bit early this year, played nearly flawless basketball for the past several days, punctuated by a nine-assist, zero-turnover game against the Bears tonight.
Draft gurus are already buzzing about Ennis substantially improving his stock over the past few games, and fans of the Orange have to be hoping scouts will stop trying to steal their burgeoning stars.
But the Orange were not without their flaws, most notably on the offensive glass. Yes, Baylor made its fair share of 3-pointers — nine to be exact — but most were well-contested and simply examples of good shooters doing what they do best. The poor job cleaning up the defensive glass, on the other hand, was the primary reason that the Bears were able to continually bring the game back to single-digits despite Syracuse twice getting the margin to 14 after halftime.
Still, the takeaway for Syracuse fans can only be positive, as the rebounding woes are not to be expected from time to time when you play a zone like the one Jim Boeheim employs. In addition, Syracuse had arguably its greatest three-day stretch of team free throw shooting ever, and the team finally started to click on offense, showing just how dangerous they can be, albeit in spurts for now as they continue to work out the kinks.