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SU hoops defeats Pittsburgh in Big East quarterfinals

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NEW YORK — Michael Carter-Williams has done some amazing things in his first season with extended playing time at Syracuse.

He’s also seen some tough times, especially at the end of close games.

On Thursday at Madison Square Garden, the sophomore point guard exhibited the kind of poise and talent that has NBA scouts drooling.

Carter-Williams scored all 11 of his points in the second half, including the final six Orange points over the last two minutes, and came up with a huge steal in the closing seconds to help fifth-seeded SU hold off No. 4 Pittsburgh, 62-59, in a fierce Big East Conference Tournament quarterfinal.

As is only fitting, the Orange (25-8) will face off with its biggest conference rival, top-seeded Georgetown (25-5), in tonight’s semifinal at 7. The Hoyas whipped the Orange twice this season, including a 61-39 shellacking just last Saturday in Washington.

“Our only goal coming to New York was to start playing better,’’ SU coach Jim Boeheim said. “That’s two solid games in a row, so at least we’re heading in the right direction.’’

Thanks in large measure to Carter-Williams, who sunk four free throws in the closing 30 seconds with Pittsburgh (24-8) threatening to tie the game. And kudos to senior James Southerland, from nearby Bayside, Queens, who continued his out-of-this- world shooting with a game-high 20 points.

Southerland, who missed the first Pittsburgh game (a 65-55 SU road loss) due to eligibility problems, made six more 3-pointers, giving him 12 in two days, including a 5-for-5 effort in the first half as the Orange built a 40-27 halftime lead.

Junior C.J. Fair added 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and senior Brandon Triche contributed 12 points.

“It’s a great feeling to finally beat Pitt, and to be able to help my team out like that,’’ said Southerland, who is 12-for-15 from behind the arc in two games. “I just tried to keep moving, and get myself open. When you’re on a streak like this, you just hope it won’t end.’’

After nearly a month of offensive struggles, SU recorded another strong effort on that end, shooting 46.8 percent. And the consistent Orange defense limited the Panthers to 37.5-percent shooting.

“Like yesterday, the offense was as good as it’s been all season,’’ Boeheim said. “Pittsburgh is a very physical team that’s really tough to score on. It wasn’t like James was getting really open looks. He made most of them with a hand in his face.’’

Pittsburgh, who had won 10 of the past 11 meetings, made an adjustment on Southerland the second half, as the Orange expected. He got off just one more three, sinking it. But the Panthers’ concentration on him opened up some good scoring chances for the other guys.

“Several times they had two, or sometimes three, defenders on James,’’ Carter-Williams said. “He did a good job of not forcing the issue the second half.’’

Despite their second-half offensive struggles, the Orange managed to cling to a substantial lead. Pittsburgh, however, crept back within four points a couple of times, including to 47-43 on a Tray Woodall 3-pointer with 8:35 left.

Carter-Williams answered right back with a three of his own, and Fair added a strong driving bucket to increase the lead back to nine.

“I had just let Woodall hit that big shot, and coach really yelled at me,’’ Carter-Williams said. “That was one of the few really good looks I had, and I shot it confidently.’’

Southerland’s final 3-pointer helped keep Pittsburgh at bay again. But consecutive baskets by Lamar Patterson and Taleb Zanna cut the deficit to four points again, 55-51, at the under four-minute timeout.

“Syracuse was kind of on the ropes at that point,’’ Woodall said. “But they made some big plays down the stretch.’’

Another big hoop by Carter-Williams made it 58-52 for SU with 2:10 remaining. But the Panthers kept battling, denying the Orange on consecutive possessions. Woodall (12 points) finished off a conventional 3-point play on a drive to the hoop, and Zanna got his club within a point with an inside basket with just 1:15 to play. But he missed the ensuing free throw.

That’s when Carter-Williams calmly stepped to the foul line and hit consecutive 1-and-1’s as Pittsburgh had to foul.

“I made a couple key mistakes down the stretch, so I had to make up for them,’’ Carter-Williams said. “There really wasn’t any pressure for me.’’

Said Boeheim: “Michael has missed a few key free throws this year, including some against Temple here (in the Gotham Classic in December). Sometimes, you have to have some bad experiences to make the good ones better. He’s a real competitor.’’

Down by three after Carter-Williams’s final two foul shots with 10.7 seconds left, Pittsburgh attacked up the sidelines. But when Triche and Fair trapped Pitt freshman James Robinson, he threw the ball backwards for Woodall as Carter-Williams stepped in front and came up with the steal. He then dribbled the ball away until being fouled with just 0.1 second left.

“I anticipated that pass coming back so I made an early move,’’ said Carter-Williams. “But give Brandon and C.J. the credit for really forcing that turnover.’’

SU used a 15-1 run midway through the first half, sparked by Southerland and Triche, to seize a 12-point lead.

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