Miami struggles against Syracuse zone defense, suffers fifth ACC loss in seven games

Photo credit: Twitter, @caneshoops

The Miami Hurricanes attempted to build momentum on the road at Syracuse after upsetting the No. 16 Louisville Cardinals on Saturday. But not much went right for Jim Larrañaga’s program, however, as his team struggled mightily against Syracuse’s stifling defense.

Syracuse guards Joe Girard III and Buddy Boeheim scored 23 points each, forward Quincy Guerrier notched 18, and Syracuse (8-4, 2-3 ACC) defeated Miami 83-57 (6-7, 2-6 ACC) on Tuesday night at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY.

Despite jumping out to an 11-2 lead behind sophomore forward Anthony Walker’s nine points, the Canes soon went ice-cold from the field, shooting 9-of-26 total and 0-for-11 from distance in the first half. The Orange scored 27 points off of their opponent’s turnovers and went into halftime with a comfortable 14-point lead, 36-22.

“Syracuse was very sharp offensively,” Larrañaga said. “The ability to just score the ball, even when our defense was on them. We defended them pretty well in the first five minutes but after that, they went on a 27-5 run, and that kind of deflated us completely. Our defense then broke down and we just couldn’t make shots against the zone.”

Girard III hit just the second jump shot for the Orange over seven minutes into the game, and forward Alan Griffin soon after made a 3-point field goal to tie the game at 12. Both teams did not hit another shot for two minutes.

“We made shots, I think we’re a better shooting team than this,” said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, despite the Orange shooting over 50 percent total on the evening. “We were 10-for-25 from the three which certainly is good, but I think we can make more of those shots. We just gotta keep moving the ball and getting those shots.”

Girard III scored 13 more Syracuse points and Boeheim chipped in five before the intermission, while sophomore guard Isaiah Wong did not score for the entire first half, after a career-high 30 points against Louisville.

“We dug ourselves a big hole and even to start the second half we missed several threes,” Larrañaga said. “We’ve got to beat the zone by going inside and outside. We went inside early, it seemed to work. Anthony Walker got us off to a good start, but when you’re not making threes against that zone, it’s very, very difficult.”

Unable to find the right rhythm after the half, Miami did not find the bottom of the basket until Wong’s 3-point field goal three minutes into the action. Guerrier began to sizzle, scoring six straight points while the Canes only saw senior guard Kameron McGusty score the same number of points in two minutes. The former Oklahoma transfer eclipsed the 1,000-point mark after returning from a hamstring injury.

“Our team is playing pretty well against man-to-man on offense and pretty good against teams that shoot twos,” Larrañaga said. “We’re not great against teams that zone and we’re not great against teams that shoot threes … If you look at our best wins in Purdue, NC State, and Louisville, they all played man-to-man for 40 minutes.”

Syracuse’s starting guards nonetheless continued their relentless attack from the perimeter, as Boeheim scored 13 and Gerard III added five after the 13-minute mark. Wong began to heat up, logging 12 points after not converting on a shot for the first 23 minutes of play though not a single player besides Walker would score in double figures.

“The zone [defense] is designed to deflect and steal passes,” Larrañaga said. “What you have to do is really move the ball and really attack the gaps. We did a little bit of that in the second half for about a five- or seven-minute period, but in order to do that you have to have 3-point shooting, so that when you penetrate, you can kick it to a 3-point shooter. It’s just a very hard matchup for us.”

Miami experienced similar issues on the road at Boston College, having connected on only 2-of-16 triples against the Eagles’ zone defense.

“It’s just hard on our personnel,” said Larrañaga on the team’s struggles to consistently make threes on the season. “It was very nice to have Kam McGusty back. I thought Isaiah Wong really got it going in the second half, he was very aggressive in his attacking, but we’re gonna need to do a better job [in perimeter scoring] because I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more zone in the second half of the season.”

Miami will return home to Coral Gables and face a struggling Notre Dame (4-8, 1-5 ACC) program which recently defeated Boston College for its first conference win. The Canes and the Fighting Irish will tip off at 6 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.