SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Michael Carter-Williams snared the rebound off a missed shot by St. John's, spotted James Southerland streaking the other way behind the defense, and flipped a long outlet pass that Southerland snared while leaping above a defender at the other end of the floor.
Trailing the play, Syracuse's Brandon Triche rumbled through the lane and Southerland, in mid-air, hit him in full stride with a no-look pass that resulted in a Triche slam.
For the No. 6 Orange, it sure is good to have that guy back.
After missing six Big East games with an academic matter, Southerland has reignited the Syracuse offense. Despite a loss to UConn on Wednesday, his presence is evident, on and off the floor. He had 14 points, two steals and was the aggressive force Syracuse (20-4, 8-3 Big East) will need down the stretch vs. the Huskies. He committed four fouls in the surprising 66-58 loss, but laid the groundwork for a strong finish - one that is now critical because freshman forward Dajuan Coleman is still out following knee surgery.
"His natural progression has gotten better," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of Southerland. "I think he's become a really good, all-around player. It's been a progression. He's improved every year. His confidence has gotten better, certainly."
Despite the uncertainty that enveloped his life in the past month, the lanky 6-foot-8 forward from Bayside, Queens has settled back into his role nicely. And he's displaying the leadership in practice expected of a senior, all the while smiling as if he didn't miss those games.
"I feel like I've made a lot of progress coming from last year to now, especially being a leader," Southerland said. "It was tough not being there with my team. I wanted to be out there, especially for those tough road games like (losses at) Villanova and Pittsburgh. I'm there for them now."
Getting to this point hasn't been so easy for the happy-go-lucky Southerland, who has started only two games at Syracuse and often has irked Boeheim with some erratic play.
"The way it was for the first 2 1/2 years, a blown defensive assignment or a rebound that he didn't get, or a missed shot, all of a sudden he comes out," said Ron Naclerio, Southerland's coach at Cardozo High. "I've done that to kids, too. It's the mental toughness. You've got to be ready. You've got to get that rebound. That's just being mean and being mentally tough. I think he's done that."
Southerland was 4 of 9 from beyond the arc vs. the Huskies. The rest of the team was 0 of 14.
"He's different than most kids from New York City. Most basketball players have that swagger and that attitude. James grew up in a nice suburban neighborhood," Naclerio said. "The parks aren't as mean and rough."
Southerland has excelled this season as the first option off Boeheim's bench, averaging 13.6 points and nearly five rebounds. He also has 17 blocks and is 38.5 percent from 3-point range.
"He's a great kid," Naclerio said.
He hit a low point last season, though, when Southerland became a nonfactor in the two most important home games. He played only five minutes and didn't score in a win against Georgetown, then scored just three points in five minutes in a win over UConn.
Southerland regained his touch in the postseason, scoring all 10 of his points over the final eight minutes, leading Syracuse to a victory over UConn in the Big East quarterfinals.
A week later, after 7-foot center Fab Melo was declared ineligible for the NCAA tournament, Southerland stepped up again. He had 13 points in the second half as the top-seeded Orange avoided a nightmare, defeating North Carolina-Asheville, a No. 16 seed, 72-65.
"In practice, they tell me he doesn't miss," Naclerio said. "NBA scouts told me - during the lockout (in 2011), when they had nothing to do - they spent days in Syracuse and a lot of teams asked me, `Coach, what's the story with this kid? How come he doesn't play? In practice he looks like a pro.'
"Some kids progress at a different rate. James progressed at a slower rate. He still has so much more upside that he can reach. Thank God right now he's doing what he's done. If James didn't have a good game against Asheville, he'd be like Columbus - he'd be history."
Southerland has seven more regular-season games in his college career and then the postseason. When he was out, freshman Jerami Grant filled in nicely and Boeheim has tabbed Grant to be a starter the rest of the year.
Not a problem.
"I realize how good I can be," said Southerland, who tied Gerry McNamara's school record with nine 3-pointers vs. Arkansas in November. "As long as you work hard and keep your mind on it, you can accomplish anything."
Follow Kekis on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/Greek1947