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Easy does it for Syracuse in blowout of Montana

By Eric Gilmore | CBSSports.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Syracuse got exactly what it needed Thursday night in its opening game of the NCAA tournament -- a no-stress, no-doubt, 81-34 rout of the overmatched Montana Grizzlies.

Syracuse has its demons from past losses to double-digit seeds in the NCAA tournament, including openers to Vermont in 2005 and Texas A&M in 2006, as well a second round game against Marquette in 2011. Then there was a first round loss to Richmond, a 15 seed, in 1991. Another cautionary outcome for the Orange.

This time, fourth-seeded Syracuse didn't have to deal with even a hint of an upset bid from Montana, a No. 13 seed.

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And yes, that was "definitely" important, Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams said.

"Last year was a close game, our first-round game," Carter-Williams said of Syracuse's 72-65 win over North Carolina-Ashville. "It was nerve-wracking. This one we took it to them pretty good. We had a great start. Our confidence is high. We're just looking forward to our next game."

The Orange quickly proved to be too big, too tall and too skilled for Montana, the regular-season and tournament champions of the Big Sky Conference.

Brandon Triche scored 12 of his game-high 20 points in the first half, and C.J. Fair scored 11 of his 13 points, lifting Syracuse to a 38-15 lead at the break. DaJuan Coleman scored 12 points off the bench. James Southerland and Rakeem Christmas each scored nine points for the Orange.

Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory, Spencer Coleman and Jake Wiley led Montana (25-7) with five points apiece. The Grizzlies hadn't scored fewer than 60 points in any game this season before scoring just 34 against Syracuse.

Syracuse (27-9) jumped to a 20-4 lead with over 12 minutes still left in the first half as Fair scored nine quick points.

Syracuse will face No. 12 seed California, a 64-61 upset winner over fifth-seed UNLV, in a Round of 32 game Saturday in the East region. The winner of that game advances to the Sweet 16.

After losing four of its final regular-season games, Syracuse made a run to the Big East Tournament final before losing to Louisville. Coach Jim Boeheim said he considers Thursday's blowout win another step in the right direction.

"We played well in New York and we continued that tonight on both ends of the court," Boeheim said. "Our defense was good. And everybody had good games. It was one of those nights. It was just our night."

For the second straight year, Syracuse began the NCAA Tournament amid an off-court controversy. Last year, Syracuse lost starting center Fab Melo just two days before its tournament opener against UNC Asheville when he was ruled ineligible. And this year? On the eve of the Orange's opener against Montana, CBSSports.com reported that Syracuse basketball has been under NCAA investigation for a period of "years" and that the school had received a letter of preliminary inquiry from the NCAA.

When asked Wednesday about the story, Boeheim said there was zero chance either he or his players would be distracted.

"There's no distractions for me," Boeheim said. "And these players, there's absolutely no distractions for them. They're here to play Montana and that's it."

The Orange certainly didn't look distracted Thursday night. They shot out of the gates with a purpose and quickly ended all doubt.

"We don't pay attention to it," Carter-Williams said. "It has nothing to do with us. It has to do with people in the past. We don't pay any attention to it. We just go out there and play our game."

Fair said the NCAA investigation had no effect on the Orange and certainly wasn't used as a rallying cry of any kind.

"I don't think it had an effect at all," Fair said. "We don't pay that no mind because it doesn't really concern the people that are on our team right now. I don't think it had any effect on us. You can't use it as motivation. You just ignore it. Stay out of it."

Syracuse unleashed its 2-3 zone defense, and the Grizzlies often had trouble even getting a good shot, let alone making a basket. Montana was without leading scorer Mathias Ward, who was lost for the year in March with a foot injury, but the Grizzlies were making no excuses.

"It was ugly," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. "They played really well. We didn't play well at all. We all know the margin of victory. And there's more. Their shots went in. Ours didn't. They're really good. They've got a lot of talent."

Montana shot 20 percent from the field in the first half, making just 5 of 25 shots, and 10 percent from long range, going 1 for 10. Syracuse, meanwhile went 56 percent from the field on 14-for-25 shooting and 50 percent from long range, hitting 3 of 6.

"We came to play today," Fair said. "We didn't take the team for granted, because this was the most important game of the season so far. We know what type of team they are and what type of shooting team they are. We used our size to our advantage. We kept them off the boards a lot."

Syracuse opened the second half on a 17-2 run, increasing its lead to 55-17 with still more than 14 minutes remaining.

Now Syracuse has a day to prepare for Cal, a team that promises to provide a much more stressful test, especially playing so close to its Berkeley home.

"They're very good," Boeheim said. "They've got a tremendous team. I watched them during that streak this year where they played well in the conference. I have a lot of respect for them. Mike [Montgomery's] a really good friend of mine and has been for a long time. He's a tremendous basketball coach. This should be a great test for us."

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