NEW YORK — Took a few tries for Syracuse to win a game in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. With that hurdle finally cleared, the Orange can now focus on bigger postseason aspirations and the critical test on tap.
Freshman forward Marek Dolezaj scored a career-high 20 points and the Orange beat Wake Forest 73-64 on Tuesday night to reach the second round.
Syracuse had plenty of New York City success in the Big East Tournament over the years but had been 0-3 in ACC postseason play since switching conferences.
“I thought our defense really was the difference,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “They’re a very, very good offensive team, and I thought we got them off their spot.”
Tyus Battle had 18 points and Paschal Chukwu added 14 points and nine rebounds for Syracuse. All five starters scored in double figures for the 11th-seeded Orange (20-12), hoping an impressive performance in Brooklyn will get them off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.
“We had a great strength of schedule this year, much better than last year. We didn’t win on the road last year; we won on the road this year. So we’ve done some good things,” Boeheim said. “We’ve proven that we can compete with anybody.”
Next up, the Orange play Wednesday night against 12th-ranked and sixth-seeded North Carolina, the defending national champion.
“We’re confident against anyone we play. I don’t care who it is. We hung in there with some of the best teams in the country, and when we’re on the floor 1-on-1 with them, we’re confident we’re going to come out with the win,” Battle said.
Bryant Crawford scored 22 points for No. 14 seed Wake Forest (11-20). Normally dangerous from long range, the Demon Deacons went 6 for 29 (20.7 percent) on 3-pointers against Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone and never led in the game.
Playing in its home state, Syracuse had the benefit of partisan support on a neutral court, with many of its chanting fans in a crowd of 10,612 decked out in orange.
“We came out flat,” Crawford said. “They came out with way more energy than us.”
Frank Howard had 11 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals for Syracuse, which snapped a three-game skid Saturday with a 55-52 victory at home against then-No. 18 Clemson. Oshae Brissett added 10 points, on 2-of-11 shooting, and nine rebounds.
Wake Forest was down 19 with under eight minutes remaining but shaved the deficit to six on two free throws by Brandon Childress with 1:24 left. Dolezaj tossed an alley-oop to the 7-foot-2 Chukwu for his second consecutive dunk, and Chukwu’s block at the other end led to two foul shots by Brissett that made it 68-58 with 1:04 to go.
The baby-faced Dolezaj scored Syracuse’s first five points after halftime, and a 3 by Howard started an 11-0 run that gave the Orange their largest lead, 56-37, with 8:12 remaining.
Wake Forest went scoreless for 6:26 and never fully recovered.
“I didn’t think our bigs rebounded the ball well enough,” coach Danny Manning said. “Our bigs have to have more of a presence on the glass.”
Syracuse shot 66.7 percent from the floor in the second half (12 for 18) and finished at 54.8 percent despite going 4 for 17 from 3-point range (23.5 percent). Dolezaj and Chukwu were both 6 of 7, including several dunks.
“Marek was tremendous getting into the open spots. He has been looking to score better over the last part of the year,” Boeheim said. “In the middle of the zone, they didn’t guard him in the high-post area. He can make that shot. I thought he really played well.”
Wake Forest: Lost its final three games of the season and seven of its last nine. … Dropped to 1-7 all-time against Syracuse, losing two of three matchups this season.
Syracuse: Needing to win and knowing he has a thin roster, Boeheim didn’t make a second-half substitution until Battle fouled out with 32.8 seconds to go. … Dolezaj, from Slovakia, set his previous career best with 12 points against Boston College on Jan. 24.
Wake Forest, which ranked third in the ACC in 3-point shooting at 38.2 percent, was 1 for 13 from beyond the arc in the first half and went to the free-throw line only once. Syracuse led 20-4 less than nine minutes in.
Wake Forest: Returns three starters next season, including Crawford and 7-foot-1 Doral Moore, and all its key reserves without losing a player who averaged more than 8.8 points per game.
Syracuse: The Orange lost 78-74 at home to then-No. 10 North Carolina (22-9) on Feb. 21. “We don’t look at any game as a do-or-die,” Howard said. “We don’t want to put any pressure on ourselves.”