Syracuseís C.J. Fair, center, and Jerami Grant, right, battle Villanovaís James Bell, left, for a loose ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013. Syracuse won 78-62. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It didn’t take long for Villanova coach Jay Wright to see that his No. 8 Wildcats weren’t quite the same after a week off for the holidays.
“I sensed that when we came back from break we were just a little bit off,” Wright said. “We were in such a groove. We got a little bit better yesterday. I was hoping. In hindsight, I would have practiced on Christmas night.”
Hindsight did the Wildcats no good on Saturday. After racing to an 18-point lead in the first half against No. 2 Syracuse, Villanova was unable to hold on, done in by a 20-point Orange run in a 78-62 loss.
“Syracuse has a really good team,” Wright said. “They really played at a high level. This is a tough place to play. We slipped. They did not.”
Villanova (11-1) started the game by hitting four straight 3-pointers — three swishes by James Bell and another by Darrun Hilliard — and led 25-7 midway through the first half after a dunk by freshman Josh Hart.
And the Wildcats defense repeatedly thwarted the Orange attack. Syracuse (12-0) struggled to create open looks and went nearly 4 minutes without a basket as the Wildcats looked exactly like the team that had already beaten two ranked teams.
“There was no indication we were going to get going,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
If the Orange were frazzled by their largest deficit of the season, it never showed. They responded with a 5-minute spurt to take their first lead and never trailed again.
“They came out on fire. They kind of caught us off-guard,” said C.J. Fair, who fought through constant double teams to score 17 points for the Orange. “We knew the kind of team they are. It’s hard to have a defense for the type of offense they have for the first 5 or 10 minutes.”
Syracuse tightened its defense and the Wildcats missed seven shots, committed three fouls and were called for a travel before losing the ball out of bounds as the game began to slip away.
Villanova trailed 34-30 at the half, not bad considering leading scorer JayVaughn Pinkston had only three points on 1-of-3 shooting, his only make of the game coming on a desperation 3 at the shot-clock buzzer in the final minute of the period.
“They weathered the storm,” Wright said. “We hit shots. When you hit shots like that, everything looks great, but you know you’re not going to shoot that percentage for the entire game. They weathered it and kept coming back at us. We had the lead and then we got sloppy.”
Bell finished with a career-high six 3-pointers and matched his career high with 25 points to lead Villanova before fouling out with 1:42 left. Hart had 10 points, the only other Villanova player in double figures. Pinkston, averaging 16.5 points, finished with three points on 1-of-4 shooting, while Hilliard, averaging 14.4, had only five points on 1-of-7 shooting before fouling out in the final minute.
“We had our struggles,” Bell said. “We can’t depend on the ball going in the net to play defense. They went on a run, we got down, and we were just playing from behind after that. I feel like we lost a little bit of what we do.”
Trevor Cooney led Syracuse with 21 points, Tyler Ennis had 20, and Jerami Grant 11.
“It was a tough war to get back,” said Cooney, who was 5 of 8 from long range. “Getting behind like that against a team like Villanova, it’s tough to come back. It shows a lot about us.”
Syracuse was the third unbeaten ranked team the Wildcats faced this season. Villanova handed then-No. 2 Kansas its first loss of the season a month ago in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and came back the next night and defeated No. 23 Iowa in overtime.
In the second half, Syracuse scored nine straight points early and the Wildcats committed four fouls in a 59-second span to fall farther behind. Cooney’s 3 from the top of the key gave the Orange a 47-37 lead with 16:32 left and Fair’s follow slam of a miss by Ennis kept the lead at 10.
Syracuse finished 29 of 35 from the free throw line.
“We just have to play through it,” Hart said. “They played great defense the last 30 minutes. We’ve got to go back to work tomorrow, do all the things that got us here.”
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