It’s tough to beat a team three times in a year if you’re not significantly better. Syracuse won two times in the regular season, with State shooting horribly in the first game and with the Orange having a big night from behind the arc to win the second game. But there was no big discrepancy in shooting in this one. And the result was an 83-65 win for the Pack. With the victory, State advances in the tournament to play Duke Thursday night at 7 p.m.

This game was close throughout the first half, with State taking a three-point lead into intermission. But Syracuse jumped on top early in the second period, going up 37-35, off back-to-back turnovers by Michael O’Connell. Each team added two points, with State’s coming on two free throws by Mo Diarra. And then State blew the doors off, scoring 46 of the next 66 points, to take a 24-point lead.

Just like in the first game of the tournament against Louisville, State succeeded thanks to converting turnovers into points and being ultra efficient at the foul line. Against Syracuse, State forced 19 turnovers, that they turned into 30 points. And they also hit 20-24 shots from the charity stripe.

Four players scored in double figures, notching between 15 and 18 points each. Jayden Taylor led the way with 18 and he also grabbed 9 rebounds. D.J. Horne, who sat out the opening round due to a hip flexor, came off the bench to score 16 points in 20 minutes, tying O’Connell for the second-most points. And DJ Burns had 15, hitting seven of his 12 shots.

While he didn’t reach double figures, Diarra stuffed the stat sheet with 8 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 1 block. And he did this while observing Ramadan, which prohibits him from eating or drinking from sun up to sun down. The announcers talked about Diarra inhaling food and drink on the sideline when he was first allowed. We also saw a shot of him stretching on the sideline, trying to avoid cramping too much. It was a terrific performance given the circumstances.

Syracuse still out-shot State in the game, but the margin was close at 46.6% to 42.4%. But the real difference came from behind the arc. After hitting over 50% of their 3-point shots in the last head-to-head matchup, Syracuse converted just 6-19 shots from behind the arc. Chris Bell, who hit his first eight shots from behind the arc last time, got in early foul trouble. And while he still hit 3-5 from long distance, it wasn’t the tone-setting output from the last matchup.

Things get noticeably more difficult here on out. Up next is the Pack’s third game in three days which is bad enough all by itself. But they have to face a Duke squad which dominated them when they played in Raleigh. In that game, Duke’s strategy was to keep State’s shooters locked down and living with whatever Burns gave them in the paint. Burns went for a season-high 27 points but no one else scored more than 10 and the Pack lost by 15.

Taylor has scored 64 points in the three games State’s played since the Duke loss and they’ll need a big night from him to have a chance. The same goes for Horne, who will be a little more rested than his teammates since he didn’t play Tuesday.

The Pack is an early 10-point underdog versus Duke and it’s surprising that the line isn’t higher. It was a great effort to get past Syracuse and it will take an even better game to knock off the Blue Devils. Coming into the tournament it was my opinion that Duke and Florida State were the two worst matchups for State.

But if nothing else, we got to witness two tournament wins for the Pack for the first time in 10 years. That’s an achievement that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. It’s been said here many times that one of the best things for coach Kevin Keatts is that his teams play hard for him. Here’s hoping they have at least one more hard-fought effort left in them this season.

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