Syracuse's winning streak was long, it was exciting, and it was impressive.
But it's over.
That was the theme Thursday at practice, as the No. 3 Orange (18-1, 5-1 Big East) continued preparations for No. 7 Villanova (16-2, 4-1) on Saturday. With the 18-game run now in the rearview mirror, it was time to focus on the Wildcats. Period.
"We just lost. Guys are hungry," senior forward Rick Jackson said. "We're going to be fired up. The crowd is going to be crazy, regardless, and the crowd's on our side."
Ah, yes, the crowd. A year ago, the Orange made a marketing push to break the Carrier Dome record for largest attendance, and an orange-clad throng of 34,616 turned out to spur Syracuse to a win over the Wildcats.
It was an NCAA record for on-campus attendance at a college basketball game. Seating was capped at that figure, making it the first basketball sellout in Dome history. When the Wildcats visit this time this time, they might be staring at another record crowd. The university has added seats, and ticket sales were approaching 33,000 as students began staking out spots on Wednesday outside a Carrier Dome gate.
"'Nova, that's always like a rivalry game, sort of like Syracuse and Georgetown," said Jackson, who has 12 double-doubles this season. "Over the years, it's been a big game, big environment. We just want to come out, get this win and kind of redeem ourselves from the last loss, come out and play with a chip on our shoulder."
Syracuse's streak ended Monday night with a 74-66 loss at No. 5 Pittsburgh in the raucous Petersen Events Center. The Orange played without leading scorer Kris Joseph, who suffered a head injury last Saturday against Cincinnati and did not travel with the team.
"It's tough. You can't dwell on it too much in the Big East. It's such a grind, this conference," said former Syracuse star Gerry McNamara, a graduate assistant this season. "But I think we took a lot of positives from that game, if anything. We proved that we can play from behind on the road against a tough opponent, and we did it without one of our best players. If anything, there's more positives to take from that game than negatives. We know that we can start games that slow."
Joseph is recovering nicely and his mid-range jumper looked sharp as he shot Thursday before taking part in his first practice since the injury. Though his status is day-to-day, Joseph remained hopeful he would be able to play.
To make up for the loss of the 6-foot-7 Joseph, who averaged 19.5 points in the Orange's first four Big East games, coach Jim Boeheim gave sophomore James Southerland his first college start and freshman C.J. Fair extended playing time vs. Pitt. Southerland finished with eight points, four assists, no turnovers and two blocks. Fair had a season-high 16 points and nine rebounds.
"I didn't expect to play 36 minutes," Fair said. "I was prepared for it. Just playing that amount of minutes and contributing the way I did gave me good confidence - and as far as my teammates having confidence in me."
Pitt scored 19 unanswered points to start the game as Nasir Robinson repeatedly broke free in the heart of the Syracuse zone, scoring the game's first nine. The Orange missed their first 10 shots before Scoop Jardine hit a 3 at 11:59 to start a 17-0 comeback and trailed by only four at halftime.
It should have been a one-point game at the break. Despite having a foul to give in the final minute, the Orange didn't use it, then left Ashton Gibbs wide open, and Pitt's most dangerous outside threat hit a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left.
"Little things killed us," said Jackson, a Philadelphia native. "We took some tough shots, we had some defensive breakdowns, all key things that you can't do when you're away on the road in a hostile environment and playing a Top Five team."
Villanova is coming off a road loss, too. The Wildcats had an 11-game winning streak snapped on Monday, losing 61-59 at No. 8 Connecticut. Corey Fisher had a career-high 28 points, but Corey Stokes, Villanova's leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, was 0 for 6 from the field and finished with three points. The 59 points were a season low and marked the first time in 51 games that Villanova failed to reach 60.
The Wildcats played that game without guard Dominic Cheek, who has a sprained left knee. An MRI on Monday revealed no additional damage. Cheek is officially listed as questionable for Saturday.