C.J. Fair didn’t have many chances to be the main option for Syracuse last season.
Now, he has plenty.
The 6-foot-8 forward has gone from the Orange’s fourth option to No. 1, and he showed why Sunday in a 68-63 victory over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
“We went to C.J., and he made a couple of tough plays, shots that had to be made,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “He’s been a key player. He wasn’t our first option last year, but he’s always made big shots, big plays for us. We had other guys but he was developing. He’s going to get the ball and these opportunities, and he’s prepared for that.”
Fair hit three big shots from the same spot — about 15 feet from the basket on the right baseline. The smooth left-handed shooter tied the game from there at 58-58 with 6:51 to go, then he made two more in the final three minutes as the second-ranked Orange (10-0) were able to open a lead as big as seven points.
“I’m very comfortable on the baseline. I guess that’s what you say is my sweet spot,” he said.
Since 1979, this had always been a Big East Conference game. Syracuse is now a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and St. John’s remained in the Big East. The majority of the crowd of 16,357 was rooting for Syracuse, something they used to get to do during the Big East tournament. Now, it will be a rare visit to Madison Square Garden for the Orange.
“It was a great game at the Garden,” Boeheim said.
Fair and freshman guard Tyler Ennis both scored 21 points to lead the Orange.
Ennis had 15 points in the first half as Syracuse took a 39-27 lead. The Red Storm (6-3) chipped away and were able to tie it at 53-53 on three free throws by Rysheed Jordan with 9:16 to go. There were then four lead changes and three ties as Syracuse became the second highly ranked team to escape this weekend.
No. 1 Arizona beat Michigan, 72-70, on Saturday.
Ennis was “really unbelievable” in the first half, Boeheim said.
“In the second half, they did a much better job on him,” he said. “As a freshman point guard, he is playing better than any I ever had, and I’ve had a few pretty good freshman guards. If he played like a freshman, we’d be 7-3. He’s been the difference in our team.”
D’Angelo Harrison led St. John’s with 21 points on 6-for-19 shooting, including 1-for-5 from three-point range. Jordan had a career-high 13 points for the Red Storm, and JaKarr Sampson added 12.
Jerami Grant scored 14 points for the Orange.
This was Syracuse’s first true road game this season. It was the Orange’s ninth straight win in the series that Syracuse leads, 51-37.
The Red Storm missed their first 10 attempts from three-point range, and were 1-for-15 overall. They were coming off a 104-58 victory over Fordham in which they shot 60 percent on threes.
“The last four minutes of a game is where Syracuse separates itself,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “I was very disappointed with the first half, happy with the first 16 minutes of the second half, and I really didn’t like the finish. We didn’t execute and didn’t play with any purpose at all.”
Lavin referred to turnovers, forced shots and some missed free throws. The Red Storm missed four straight foul shots after taking a 60-58 lead. They were 20 for 26 from the line overall.
“It hurts to lose, but it hurts to lose to Syracuse in particular,” Harrison said. “Certain things that you can take away from the last four minutes of the game, that’s what we will watch the most.”