HERSHEY, Pa. -- Syracuse's 78-73 escape from Towson State began and ended with statements that covered the spectrum of Division I college athletics.
The post-game media conference included a no-comment from Orangemen coach Jim Boeheim regarding the day's earlier report by the Syracuse Post-Standard that alleged many possible NCAA violations in his program in recent years.
Towson State coach Terry Truax sent out a different message during the pre-game introductions, when he gave Craig Valentine his first collegiate start. A sophomore guard from Wilde Lake who had played a total of seven minutes in the Tigers' first six games, Valentine was being rewarded for having the team's highest grade-point average during the first semester, a 3.25 for the mass communications major.
"Our captains liked the idea, and so did Terrance Jacobs, who had gotten his first start in our previous game," Truax said. "Craig has worked hard every day he's been with us, and you have to reward kids for doing things right. That's the first time I've ever involved student-athletes in that type of decision. Why not? It's their team."
Valentine's day added to the nature of this David and Goliath matchup, as Syracuse, ranked No. 3 in the nation, improved to 10-0 and Towson State slipped to 3-4. The Tigers led three minutes into the second half, had a chance to go ahead with less than two minutes to play, and were never the obliging cupcake that Billy Owens expected for his heroic homecoming to south central Pennsylvania.
Owens awoke to the knowledge that the Syracuse newspaper reported that former teammate and now New Jersey Net Derrick Coleman had given him money before the Orangemen went to the Maui Classic last month. Owens had won four state titles for nearby Carlisle High, but he didn't get a sellout at the Hersheypark Arena, where there were 6,818 in attendance but room for nearly 1,000 more.
"I hoped we could blow them out and have some fun, but that didn't happen," Owens said. "If we played a Big East team like this, we might get beat."
Owens did have game-highs of 30 points and 16 rebounds and a nifty five assists, and he did rescue Syracuse with two big buckets in the last two minutes. The front-runner for national Player of the Year along with UNLV's Larry Johnson, however, had to share the spotlight with Towson State junior forward Chuck Lightening.
The 6-foot-5 leaper from Silver Spring had a career-high 29 points on 14-of-22 shooting, five rebounds and three assists. Lightening, who was 1-for-8 from the floor last year when the Tigers were crushed 105-75 at the Carrier Dome, had 18 at the half. He went nearly nine minutes into the second half before getting another shot, but kept the Tigers in the hunt down the stretch with an assortment of mid-range jumpers.
Syracuse's woes worsened when sophomore point guard David Edwards went down with an ankle injury in the fifth minute. The Orange appeared aimless at times on the offensive end without their 5-11 floor general, and they were flatfooted at the defensive end, where Towson State got 12 offensive rebounds in the first half alone.
"My biggest disappointment is that our big guys didn't rebound," said Boeheim, who was booed during the pre-game introductions. "We've got two 6-10 guys going against two 6-6 guys, and they're beating us to the ball."
The height disparity was telling in the first half, when the Tigers blew two transition opportunities and the Orangemen came back both times with alley-oop passes to Owens for easy dunks.
Towson State gained a 37-37 tie at the halftime buzzer when Jacobs tapped in an errant three-pointer by Lightening. Jacobs, a 6-3 junior guard who was knocked to the floor at least a half-dozen times, kept up his scrappy play in the second half, when he got 14 of his 18 points. He finished with a team-high nine rebounds.
Jacobs was Devin Boyd's target when the latter turned the ball over with Syracuse clinging to a 72-70 lead inside two minutes. It was Towson State's last chance to tie, but the mistake didn't diminish a strong night by Boyd, who had 18 points and game-highs of 10 assists and five steals.
Syracuse got 19 points and seven rebounds from 6-6 junior Dave Johnson, and 6-10 senior LeRon Ellis perked up in the second half to finish with 12 points and six rebounds. Another factor was the free throw line, where the Orangemen were 20-for-27 and the Tigers were 9-for-19.
Towson State's Valentine? He made both of his field goal attempts and got an assist in a six-minute stint. Truax said he does everything right.