MBB : Fair breaks out of late-season scoring drought to lead Syracuse into Elite Eight
BOSTON – With C.J. Fair’s dunk in transition, exactly a month’s worth of weight was lifted of his shoulders. A six-pack of poor performances spanning 29 days was erased with one simple, two-handed finish at the rim in the early moments of Thursday’s game.
‘That definitely was a big part of my night, just seeing the ball go in the hoop,’ Fair said. ‘Then after the dunk I got a little floater or something, and I knew from there the ball was bouncing my way.’
And for the first time since Feb. 22, the ball did in fact bounce Fair’s way. Behind an efficient 7-of-9 shooting performance, Fair snapped out of his slump to lead the Orange to a 64-63 win over Wisconsin on Thursday night at TD Garden. He led Syracuse in scoring (15 points) and rebounding (seven boards) to send SU to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003.
Early on, though, it appeared that Fair was destined for another subpar game. He was called for a travel and missed a pair of free throws on two offensive possessions within the first 10 minutes of the game, failing to register a point.
But with a simple interception of a Ryan Evans pass, Fairkick-started his best game since SU’s win over Rutgers on Feb. 19. He quickly pushed the ball up ahead to Dion Waiters, who rewarded the sophomore forward with a no-look dish at the other end for the easy slam.
‘It was huge,’ Waiters said. ‘We were on the break, and I think the dunk I got him is what got him going. … I’m glad I got him going, and he came up huge for us.’
His dunk gave Syracuse a 22-20 lead with 5:56 remaining in the first half, and initiated a 15-3 run that allowed the Orange to take the lead after 20 minutes of play.
Fair’s trademark mid-range jumpers, which had gone awry since late February, suddenly found the bottom of the net just as they had during the majority of the regular season. He hit one from the left baseline, off an assist from Scoop Jardine, in the first half. And then returned to that spot – this time on the other end of the court – to sink a tough one-dribble pull-up over Evans and give SU a 44-40 lead in the second half.
‘That’s what I was telling him before the game, ‘You have to step it up because it’s about time you wake up,’ Syracuse center Baye Keita said.
By hitting his jump shots, Fair forced the Badgers to play him tighter on defense. And once his defender closed in, he was able to drive to the basket and take advantage of his quickness.
After hitting the shot over Evans, his next basket came on a drive from right to left through the paint, allowing him to lay the ball in with his left hand off the glass.
‘Today he was able to give us some scoring, and when he’s giving us scoring, we’re hard to beat,’ Jardine said. ‘He’s that offensive weapon that you don’t have to call a play for, but you look up and he’s got 15 points. That’s something special with a kid like that.’
Rebounding, the one thing that remained fairly consistent during Fair’s slump, again proved crucial for the Orange down the stretch. He snatched a weak-side rebound off a missed dunk by Waiters and turned the putback attempt into a three-point play. He shook off his two missed free throws to convert his third and final attempt of the night, tying the game at 56-56 late in the second half.
And on one of the biggest possessions of the game, it was Fair who ensured the Badgers came away with no points by hauling in a rebound despite Wisconsin center Jared Berggren breathing down his neck.
So it was fitting that Fair made one final play to help seal Syracuse’s victory in the final 30 seconds. He lunged in to secure a 50-50 ball after Brandon Triche’s pass was tipped by a Wisconsin double-team in the backcourt.
Fair got the ball across midcourt, forcing the Badgers to foul and take precious time off the clock.
Said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim: ‘Tonight he was there for us. He was huge.’
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