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Posted: Sunday March 21, 2010 3:21PM; Updated: Monday March 22, 2010 2:58AM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Johnson is healthy and Syracuse again looks like a title contender

Story Highlights

Wes Johnson said he has completely recovered from a February hand injury

He and Andy Rautins led Syracuse to a dominating win over Gonzaga

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, "This is as well as we've played all year"

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(1) Syracuse (8) Gonzaga

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Wes Johnson scored a career-high 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting (including 4-of-6 threes) and hauled in 15 rebounds.
AP

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- There was a time in early-to-mid February when Wes Johnson's hand hurt so badly he couldn't lift his laptop. During games, "it hurt to tuck my jersey in," he said.

Bad news, NCAA tourney field: Those days are far behind him.

The Syracuse star drained a pair of threes and flew down the lane for a dunk within the first few minutes of Sunday's second-round game against Gonzaga. By the time the day was done, Johnson had scored a career-high 31 points on 11-of-16 shooting (including 4-of-6 threes) and hauled in 15 rebounds to help the top-seeded Orange cruise to an 87-65 victory.

When did the junior know he was in the zone Sunday?

"When I hit the first shot," he said afterward. "After that, it was rolling from there."

Johnson, slowed by his hand injury for most of February and early March, said he finally felt 100 percent during Syracuse's Big East tournament quarterfinal loss to Georgetown, when he scored 24 points. But he was hardly the only one with a hot hand for the Orange.

After a quiet first half, senior sharpshooter Andy Rautins drained a trio of treys to start the second half and finished with 24 points. Point guard Brandon Triche, not normally a big scorer, repeatedly penetrated the paint in the first half and scored his most points (13) since Feb. 2.

Syracuse finished the game shooting 54.7 percent, exploiting a Gonzaga defense that struggled all season, ranking 63rd nationally in adjusted efficiency. The Orange set a school NCAA tournament record with 12 made three-pointers, 10 of them coming from Johnson and Rautins.

"When Wes and I are hitting from three like that," said Rautins, "we're tough to beat."

The Orange endured a brief scare early when, with 8:58 left in the first half, big man Rick Jackson picked up his third foul. Syracuse led just 22-21 at the time. Already playing without center Arinze Onuaku, little-used 7-foot freshman DaShonte Riley was thrown into the fire.

It didn't matter.

The Orange immediately went on a 9-0 run, which included an over-the-shoulder assist from Riley to a driving Triche. 'Cuse would go on an a separate 11-0 run shortly before halftime to take a 47-32 lead and then, to start the second half, produce a backbreaking 13-2 run featuring Rautin's three treys.

Meanwhile, after finding a way to slow down standout 'Zags freshman Elias Harris, who scored most of his 16 first-half points inside but went quiet thereafter, the Orange forced Gonzaga to take outside shots, and the 'Zags made just 3-of-21.

The Orange stretched their lead to as many as 32 points in the second half, prompting a section of Syracuse fans to chant "Vermont was better," referring to their first-round opponent.

"This is as well as we've played all year," said their not-easy-to-please coach, Jim Boeheim. "It was a tremendous performance."

Clearly, whatever doubts lingered about the Orange following their two-game losing streak (against Louisville and Georgetown) just before the start of the tourney were obliterated with these two performances here in front of their raucous supporters.

But now they head west to Salt Lake City for Thursday night's Sweet 16 game, where they'll face a pesky Butler team that plays tighter defense than the 'Zags and can force a much slower tempo.

"It's a tough turnaround for us. We have to go a long ways," said Boeheim. "Butler is one of the best teams I've seen all year. I've had them in the top 10 of my [coaches] poll from the very beginning of the year."

The last team to draw the Bulldogs in the Sweet 16: Florida, which endured its toughest test en route to its second straight national championship in 2007.

Syracuse certainly looks capable of the same feat.

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