SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Jim Boeheim stared up in frustration at the Carrier Dome scoreboard, his No. 2 Orange in big trouble against eighth-ranked Villanova.
The Wildcats had started Saturday’s game by hitting four straight 3-pointers — three swishes by James Bell and another by Darrun Hilliard — and led 25-7 midway through the first half after a dunk by Josh Hart.
Syracuse struggled to create open looks and went nearly 4 minutes without a basket as the Wildcats looked exactly like the team that had already beaten two ranked teams.
“There was no indication we were going to get going,” Boeheim said.
If the Orange were frazzled by their largest deficit of the season, it never showed. They responded with a 20-0 run over the next 5 minutes to take their first lead and never trailed again, winning 78-62 in a game between two of nine unbeaten teams left in Division I.
“They came out on fire. They kind of caught us off guard,” said C.J. Fair, who had 17 points for the Orange despite constant double-teams. “We knew the kind of team they are. It’s hard to have a defense for the type of offense they have for the first 5 or 10 minutes.”
Syracuse (12-0) tightened its defense and the Wildcats (11-1) missed seven shots, committed three fouls and were called for a travel before losing the ball out of bounds as the game began to slip away.
Villanova trailed 34-30 at the half, not bad considering leading scorer JayVaughn Pinkston had only three points on 1-of-3 shooting, his only make coming on a desperation 3 at the shot-clock buzzer in the final minute.
“They weathered the storm,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We hit shots. When you hit shots like that, everything looks great, but you know you’re not going to shoot that percentage for the entire game. They weathered it and kept coming back at us. We had the lead and then we got sloppy.”
Trevor Cooney led Syracuse with 21 points, Tyler Ennis had 20, and Jerami Grant 11.
Bell finished with a career-high six 3-pointers and matched his career high with 25 points to lead Villanova before fouling out with 1:42 left. Hart had 10 points, the only other Villanova player in double figures. Pinkston, averaging 16.5 points, finished with three points, while Hilliard, averaging 14.4, had only five points on 1-of-7 shooting before fouling out in the final minute.
Cooney had 11 points and Fair added six in the Orange’s comeback spurt, which was capped by a driving layup by Ennis at 4:51.
“It was a tough war to get back,” said Cooney, who was 5 of 8 from long range. “Getting behind like that against a team like Villanova, it’s tough to come back. It shows a lot about us.”
Syracuse was the third unbeaten ranked team the Wildcats had faced this season. Villanova handed then-No. 2 Kansas its first loss of the season a month ago in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and came back the next night and defeated No. 23 Iowa in overtime.
“Syracuse has a really good team,” Wright said. “They really played at a high level. This is a tough place to play. I sensed that when we came back from break we were just a little bit off. We were in such a groove. We got a little bit better yesterday. I was hoping. In hindsight, I would have practiced on Christmas night. We slipped. They did not.”
In the second half, Syracuse scored nine straight points early and the Wildcats committed four fouls in a 59-second span to fall farther behind. Cooney’s 3 from the top of the key gave the Orange a 47-37 lead with 16:32 left and Fair’s follow slam of a miss by Ennis kept the lead at 10.
Nova took advantage of a flagrant foul whistled against Grant midway through the period as boos rained down from the Carrier Dome crowd of 28,135, the largest of the season. Bell sank the two free throws and Hart’s 3 from the left corner closed the gap to 54-49 with 9:25 to play.
Villanova closed to 56-53 at 7:02 after Bell hit a 3 from the corner and Daniel Ochefu’s free throw, and wouldn’t wilt. Another 3 from the corner by Bell moved the Wildcats within 64-59 with 3:25 left, but the Orange made 14 of 16 free throws to thwart any chance of a comeback.
Syracuse finished 29 of 35 from the free throw line.
“We stepped up big-time,” Boeheim said. “This was the first adverse situation (this season) where we were really down a lot.”