SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Elijah Hughes nearly pulled off the first triple-double for Syracuse in almost two decades. That he fell just short didn't matter one bit.
Hughes had 19 points, matched his career high with nine assists, and snared nine rebounds on Saturday night, leading the Orange past Niagara 71-57 in the final nonconference game of the season for both teams.
“I knew I was on the triple-double watch at halftime,"said Hughes, who had seven assists in the first half. “I didn’t really pay (attention) to it. I was just trying to make the right play and get my team in the best position to win.”
Buddy Boeheim added 15 points as Syracuse (8-5) ended extended its winning streak to three games heading into Atlantic Coast Conference play. Niagara (2-9) has lost four straight under rookie coach Greg Paulus, a former Duke point guard.
Syracuse scored the first 10 points of the game and built a 16-point lead just over 6 minutes in on a three-point play by Hughes that gave the Orange a 20-4 lead. From that point on, Niagara outscored Syracuse 53-51, not a good omen for the Orange.
“Sometimes when you get an easy lead, an early lead, it sometimes takes away from what you should be doing and you just don't get back into that rhythm," Orange coach Jim Boeheim said. “It shouldn't happen, but it happens."
After running to its big early lead, the Orange went scoreless for nearly 5 minutes and Niagara closed to 26-16 on a follow by Greg Kuakumensah with 7:19 left in the first half.
Robert Braswell then hit a pair of 3-pointers and Buddy Boeheim added another to boost the lead back to 15 as the Orange led 41-28 at the break.
Buddy Boeheim hit a pair of 3s to key a 10-4 spurt at the start of the second half and a jumper by Hughes boosted the lead to 49-30.
The Orange went just over 8 minutes without a field goal to give the Purple Eagles a chance to get back in it and they closed to 61-50 on a 3-pointer by Justin Roberts with just under 5 minutes to play but could get no closer.
“We didn’t come out with as much energy as we should have," Roberts said. “If we would have come out with more energy, I don’t know if things could have been different, but I think we kind of picked it up after the first couple of minutes, and that’s what kind of got us back in the game.”
Despite the setback, Paulus liked what he saw.
“I was proud of my guys," Paulus said. “We had some unique lineups in there at certain points, but the resiliency and the relentlessness to continue to compete and play each possession was something we continue to talk about as a program, and I'm proud of them for taking a step forward. They did a great job in that regard.”
Freshman guard Nick MacDonald had a season-high 11 points to lead Niagara, while Kuakumensah had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Syracuse assistant coach Allen Griffin had the last triple-double for the Orange in February 2001 against Pittsburgh — 14 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds.
Niagara entered the game with a rebound margin of minus-12.1 while Syracuse was at minus-2.2. The Orange won the battle on the glass 46-33, with Bourama Sidibe leading the way with 13 and 10 points. Marek Dolezaj had a career-high 12 rebounds. Hughes finished one off his career high.
Buddy Boeheim started Syracuse's early surge with a 3-pointer just 18 seconds into the game and ended it it with another. Hughes followed with eight points in a 2-minute span to give the Orange the big early lead. Hughes has been working more at point guard and has taken over the team lead in assists with 61, three more than freshman Joe Girard III.
“He can do a little bit of everything," Buddy Boeheim said of Hughes. “It’s great having someone like that. He’s really smart and you trust him wherever you put him.”
The 33-year-old Paulus was a two-sport star at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, earning New York state Gatorade player of the year honors in basketball and football in 2005. In his lone season under Syracuse football coach Doug Marrone, Paulus set a school record for completion percentage (67.7) that still stands, going 193 of 285 in 2009. When no offers came to play at football at the next level, Paulus began his basketball coaching career at Navy in 2010. After stints at Ohio State, Louisville and George Washington, he landed on the Purple Eagles staff in May as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator and was promoted to head coach in early November after Patrick Beilein abruptly resigned for personal reasons.
"We love playing under coach Paulus. We think he’s great," sophomore guard Shandon Brown said. “He knows how to talk to everybody and he gets the best out of us."
Niagara: The Purple Eagles now head into Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play and they'll have to get some rebounding. They have a nice core of players in Raheem Solomon, Marcus Hammond, Kuakumensah, and leading scorer James Towns (15.2), who scored 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting.
Syracuse: The Orange head back into Atlantic Coast Conference play and coach Boeheim is still tinkering with his lineup. When the long-range game is clicking, Syracuse is at its best, but the team has no inside presence. Niagara outscored the Orange 32-24 in the paint. The Orange also had 16 turnovers after committing just four in the previous game.
“We need to grow as a team," coach Boeheim said. “It's going to be a day-to-day thing. We've got to get better. We're not good enough right now."
Coach Boeheim also said the Orange are still trying to figure out what to do with Braswell, who's bothered by soreness in both shins. The sophomore has only played about 48 minutes in seven games this season.
“He has constant pain and it’s just hard for him to go, and the best option is to take some time away and try to get rested,” coach Boeheim said. “I think ... this would help him if he did take this year off.”
Niagara hosts Fairfield next Friday night in its MAAC opener.
Syracuse hosts Notre Dame next Saturday afternoon as it resumes ACC play.