SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has to be impressed with his third-ranked Orange, no matter what he says in the heat of the moment.
After a pair of gritty two-point wins in a three-day span - at then-No. 1 Louisville last Saturday and at home Monday against No. 21 Cincinnati - Syracuse sits alone atop the Big East standings.
The Orange have only lost once in 29 conference regular-season games in the past calendar year and have beaten their opponents this season by an average of 19.2 points. Winning two close games in a row is a good sign for a team that hasn't been tested too much, but another challenge awaits Saturday with a road matchup against a Villanova team coming off its own victory over Louisville.
Aside from a four-point loss to Temple at Madison Square Garden just before Christmas, Detroit gave Syracuse its biggest scare the night Boeheim won his 900th game. The Titans rallied from 20 points down in the final minutes before the Orange escaped with a 72-68 win Dec. 17, thanks in large part to 22 points from sharpshooting senior forward James Southerland.
"These guys have made plays in the games we've had, and even the game we lost," Boeheim said after Syracuse's 57-55 comeback win over the Bearcats. "They fight it, and when we're not playing well they keep fighting it. If they weren't battlers, we easily could've had two, maybe three losses in the conference."
Instead, at 6-0, the Orange (18-1) are the only team in the Big East with an unblemished record, and they've won the past three games without their steadiest outside shooter.
Southerland, second on the team in scoring at 13.6 points per game and the leader with 33 makes from 3-point range, was declared out indefinitely because of an eligibility matter involving academics that has yet to be resolved.
In his absence, freshman Jerami Grant has stepped in and played well, averaging 9.3 points and 5.6 rebounds while blocking four shots in the three games. He was instrumental in a 72-61 home win over Villanova (12-7, 3-3) on Jan. 12 in his first extended action of the season, scoring a season-high 13.
Syracuse beat Louisville by snagging three turnovers in the final seconds, the last two forced by point guard Michael Carter-Williams. He intercepted a pass at the top of the key with the game tied at 68-all and scored the winning basket on a breakaway slam dunk with 23 seconds left, then stole the ball again under the Orange basket as the Cardinals were vying for the tie. C.J. Fair was credited with the winning tip-in against Cincinnati with 19.4 seconds left in regulation after Grant failed to convert a drive through the lane.
"Without those two things happening, we're 0-2 and everybody is going, 'Syracuse is in trouble,' because we should've lost both those games," Boeheim said. "That's why Rick (Pitino) was so upset. There was no way on earth that Louisville should've lost that game ... and there was less of a chance for Cincinnati to lose. The game was completely over."
Brandon Triche, the Orange's leading scorer, had 23 points and six rebounds against Louisville, while Carter-Williams had 16 points and seven assists in each of the past two games, more than making up for 11 turnovers. Both hit key shots late in each game.
"You don't want to have confidence that you're going to be down and come back. That's not good confidence," Triche said. "The confidence is that we're going to stick it out, we're not going to get down on each other. We're just going to play for each other."
Villanova will surely have plenty of confidence after upsetting the No. 5 Cardinals 73-64 on Tuesday.
The Wildcats led by as many as 10 points in the first half and rallied late in the second, going ahead on Achraf Yacoubou's 3-pointer with 3:57 left.
"I just felt we broke through tonight," said freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who scored a team-high 15 points to help Villanova end a 12-game skid against ranked opponents. "We just kept grinding, kept grinding. ... I had no doubts. I didn't have any doubts we were going to win this game."
Arcidiacono was held to seven points on 2-of-8 shooting earlier this month against Syracuse, which won its third straight in the series after losing eight of 11 previous matchups.
"They're as good as anybody in the country," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "... The great thing about playing in this league is if you have a tough night, you get another chance to do something great your next time out. You are always playing outstanding teams."
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved