SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Call Virginia’s Pack-Line defense impenetrable. You’ll get no argument from Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.
De’Andre Hunter scored 15 points, Kyle Guy added 14 and the 2nd-ranked Cavaliers smothered struggling Syracuse 59-44 on Saturday. The 44 points were the Orange’s fewest since the Carrier Dome opened in 1980, another feather in the cap for the best defense in the nation.
“The guys are playing at a high level, for sure,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They understand how they have to play. It’s nice when you have guys in there making the right plays. We were sliding in and out. I like what our guys are doing.”
Syracuse had to search for open shots on nearly every possession and found virtually nothing, often having to rush shots as the shot clock moved toward zero. Syracuse finished 17 of 51 (33 percent) and 4 of 21 (19 percent) from beyond the arc.
“We rely on our two guards to score and make plays and when they don’t, we have a problem offensively,” Boeheim said. “And that’s the bottom line the last three games. We’ve had trouble scoring.”
The Orange needed big games from their top three scorers — Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, and Oshae Brissett — and they didn’t deliver. Battle finished with 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting, Howard was 4 of 17 for 11 points and Brissett had nine points. Freshman forward Marek Dolezaj was the only other player to score for the Orange, also netting nine points.
“It makes us feel good,” Hunter said. “Those three guys can really score. They kind of lean on them a lot. We knew coming in we had to stop those three, and if we did we’d be in good shape.”
Virginia (22-1, 11-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won 14 straight and is off to its best start in conference play since the days of Ralph Sampson, who led the 1980-81 team to a 12-0 start.
Syracuse (15-8, 4-6), in desperate need of a signature victory, was coming off a four-point loss at Georgia Tech in which it shot 30 percent (15 of 50), and the offensive futility continued against the nation’s best scoring defense.
“The reason we shot poorly was because of their defense,” Boeheim said. “Virginia has a lot to do with people shooting poorly.”
Syracuse entered the game ranked fourth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (37.7 percent), just behind Virginia, but the Cavaliers exhibited their usual patience on offense and hit 12 of 24 shots in a solid first half to take a 10-point lead at the break.
The game was a methodical, slow-paced slog. The Cavaliers, who never trailed, found room early inside the Orange’s 2-3 zone and hit three jumpers from the foul line in the opening 15 minutes, then built their biggest lead of the period with help from the long ball during an 11-0 run late.
Ty Jerome hit two 3s and Hunter had the other, and Jerome’s second was a beauty of teamwork. Instead of going up for a putback after a strong rebound under the basket, Isaiah Wilkins zipped a pass to the right corner to a wide-open Jerome, and he swished it.
Syracuse managed just one basket in the final seven minutes, a 3 by Battle with just under a minute left.
There was no second-half rally. After Howard’s dunk off a steal moved Syracuse within 36-27 early in the second, Mamadi Diakite hit a fall-away jumper along the baseline at the shot-clock buzzer after nearly losing the ball out of bounds and Guy followed with a long fall-away 3-pointer from the right wing for a 41-27 lead with 13:23 left.
The Cavaliers put the game away with a 12-0 run midway through the period and finished 23 of 47 shooting (48.9 percent).
Diakite matched his season high with 12 points.
The Cavaliers are on a serious roll and are poised to take over the top spot if Villanova stumbles.
Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu was a factor in the first game between the teams, notching a career-high 16 rebounds and scoring nine points in 35 minutes. The 7-foot-2 Chukwu had zero points and three rebounds in 26 minutes Saturday.
“I don’t know what it is,” a frustrated Boeheim said.
Virginia: Virginia has separated itself from the rest of the conference. No other team in the ACC has fewer than three losses.
Syracuse: The Orange have three more chances to notch a signature victory to bolster their resume for NCAA Tournament consideration, with regular-season games still on the schedule against No. 4 Duke, No. 19 North Carolina and No. 20 Clemson.
Virginia: Plays at Florida State on Wednesday night.
Syracuse: Travels to Louisville on Monday night.