PROVIDENCE, R.I. — For a half, the preseason projections meant nothing. Providence, picked last in the Big East, was better than No. 7 Syracuse.
Then the Friars couldn't score against Syracuse's zone late in the game.
C.J. Fair had 23 points and 11 rebounds, and Michael Carter-Williams scored 17 with six assists on Wednesday night as No. 7 Syracuse rallied from a nine-point, first-half deficit to beat the Friars 72-66.
Behind 17 first-half points by Bryce Cotton – 14 coming in a 4:23 span – Providence led by three at the half. The Friars hung close until they went more than 5 minutes without a basket late in the game.
"I think they just did a much better job – like they should – in the second half," Providence guard Josh Fortune said. "They came out on him."
But for the young Friars, it was a much better effort than a 10-point loss at home to DePaul on Saturday.
"We played a really talented team, a veteran team, a long team," coach Ed Cooley said. "We had our chances. I saw a lot of guys grow up today."
Syracuse outrebounded the Friars 41-27, collecting 18 on the offensive glass to make up for a rough shooting night.
That proved to be what hurt Providence most.
"They had a lot more rebounds than we did," Fortune said. "That was big."
Rakeem Christmas scored 15 with eight rebounds for the Orange (15-1, 3-0 Big East), who won their fifth consecutive game since a Dec. 22 loss to Temple at Madison Square Garden that is their only defeat of the season.
Cotton led Providence (8-7, 0-3), which lost its fifth in a row, with 24 points. Fortune had nine, but nailed a 3-pointer late that kept the Friars close.
Syracuse shot just 3 of 21 from 3-point range, while Providence was 9 of 18.
Syracuse led 51-50 with under 7 minutes left when Carter-Williams, with the shot clock winding down, made a 3-pointer from the top of the key. But on Providence's next possession Vincent Council, heavily guarded, fired up an off-balance 3 to avoid a shot clock violation and it went in, too.
Syracuse then held Providence without a basket over the next 5 minutes before Fortune hit a 3-pointer with 68 seconds left to make it 64-58. The Friars forced a 5-second call on the ensuing inbounds pass, then worked the ball around the perimeter to Fortune for another 3, but that one rimmed out.
After trading free throws, Providence stole the ball in transition and Fortune banked in another 3 to make it 66-62. But the Friars couldn't get back within four, as Fair went 6 for 6 from the line down the stretch and the Orange were 10 for 10 in the final 81 seconds.
Cotton did not start on Saturday against DePaul after having his knee drained the day before. He came off the bench and scored 16 points in the final 3 1/2 minutes against the Blue Demons, then came out quickly on Wednesday with 17 points in the first half.
Providence entered the game as the last-place team in the Big East, losers of its last four games – including a Dec. 28 loss to Brown. But the Friars opened a nine-point lead in the first half, making six of 10 from 3-point range in the half, with Cotton sinking his first five attempts.
Cotton sank four 3-pointers during a 19-5 run that turned a six-point deficit into a 29-21 lead with 6:48 left in the half. It was 33-24 when Syracuse scored the final six points of the half, including a 3-pointer by Carter-Williams that was the only 3 the Orange made in the half (1 for 11).