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Shaky Syracuse holds on to beat Bryant by 1 in hoops opener

SYRACUSE — The Syracuse University men’s basketball team narrowly escaped with a victory in a season opener that coach Jim Boeheim said he was too foolish to push forward with playing after a 12-day layoff.

Buddy Boeheim scored a game-high 23 points and Marek Dolezaj delivered 20, including a pair of free throws with 22 seconds left, to help SU pull out the 85-84 nonconference victory over Bryant on Saturday at the Carrier Dome without fans in attendance due to state coronavirus mandates.

Alan Griffin and Quincy Guerrier each recorded a double-double to help the Orange (1-0) overcome tired legs and a spirited upset bid by the Bulldogs of the Northeast Conference. Syracuse announced a pause on team activities Nov. 15 after Jim Boeheim and one other member tested positive for COVID-19 and was cleared to return for only one practice Thursday before playing the opener.

Syracuse showed rust from the onset and trailed for more than 30 minutes of the game, falling behind by as much as 13 early in the second half.

“It’s tough just jumping right into it, but I think we’re going to be fine,” Buddy Boeheim said. “We got a lot of work to do, we learned a lot, and to be able to go out and win a game like that where you played bad, it’s a good sign, I guess, but it showed us we’ve got a lot of work.”

Dolezaj also tallied nine assists, five steals, and six rebounds, shifting to play center for most of the game after an injury to starter Bourama Sidibe just four minutes in. Jim Boeheim said afterward that Sidibe was scheduled for an MRI Friday night.

Guerrier supplied 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Griffin generated 14 points and 12 boards in his SU debut, including a 3-for-9 mark on 3-pointers and a highlight dunk off a lob pass from Joe Girard III to tie the game at 80 apiece with three minutes and 30 seconds left.

Girard struggled mightily on his birthday — missing his first 11 shots to finish 2-for-14 from the field — but drained two critical 3-pointers in the final six minutes, including a shot from deep to give the Orange an 83-82 edge with 2:28 left.

“Joe had a nightmare game, which is what happens sometimes,” Jim Boeheim said. “He just couldn’t do anything right, but I stuck with him because he’s a veteran. … It’s the worst I’ve ever seen Joe Girard play, and I’m confident he won’t play like that again.”

Syracuse came through with several defensive stops down the stretch, including on the final possession, to preserve the victory.

Chris Childs led Bryant with 18 points and made 5 of 9 from behind the arc, all in the first half. Michael Green III and Liverpool High School graduate Charles Pride added 15 points apiece for the Bulldogs.

“We’re going to win games on defense, and that’s what we did the last 10 minutes of the game,” Dolezaj said. “We got some stops, and we got some fast breaks, and that’s how we won the game.”

The absence of the crowd energy in the Dome was palpable down the stretch. Syracuse averaged more than 20,000 fans per game last season to pace the NCAA for the second year in a row and has never finished lower than fourth in average attendance since the Dome opened in 1980.

“It was weird, I don’t know the last time I played in a game where it was that quiet,” Buddy Boeheim said. “Alan Griffin had one of the best dunks I’ve seen in person and it was just silent after, which I’m not used to, it was weird. But I’m just happy and thankful that we get to play basketball, that’s all that matters right now.”

Syracuse is scheduled to host Niagara in its next game at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Dome. The team will utilize the interim to get back into the rhythm it had developed over a four-month preseason before its recent pause.

Boeheim, who improved to 40-5 in season openers as SU head coach, shouldered the blame for moving forward with Friday’s season opener and stated that he was wrong to think they could play after the time off, even though it was approved by health officials.

Boeheim also expressed his frustration on the guideline requiring the entire team to quarantine for 14 days due to a positive test, referring to the contact tracing devices and other steps the program is taking to mitigate the potential spread of the virus and identify close contacts in the event of a positive case.

Boeheim said that if the current plan holds, “the season will be destroyed.”

“We need to figure this thing out soon because if you’re playing three or four games and then guys are out for 14 days during the season, you’re going to miss four or five games, they won’t be made up, and then you’re going to come back on one day of practice and play Duke or North Carolina? You can’t do that,” Boeheim said. “It’s physically impossible.”

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