SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Joe Girard lay flat on his back after a fall on the hardwood of Jim Boeheim Court and staring up at Notre Dame's Prentiss Hubb as the sophomore hovered over the Orange freshman guard, glaring down in menacing fashion late in a tight game with the Irish.
Girard hopped up and walked away after the brief altercation as the referees huddled and then called a technical foul against Hubb. Girard responded by sinking both free throws, the beginning of 10 straight points from Girard while Hubb responded by hitting a pair of 3-pointers to keep the game close.
It was a moment that will be etched in the minds of the Orange faithful for a long time, reminiscent of the grit Gerry McNamara brought to the team nearly two decades ago.
“If somebody challenges me or any competitor, usually you’re going to step your game up a little bit," said Girard, who drained a 3-pointer at the final buzzer and pleaded for a foul call that never came as the Orange lost by a point. "I think I was a little bit surprised. He was just competing. The refs saw it. He got over it. I got over it.”
The departure of his backcourt — point guard Frank Howard and Tyus Battle — after last season left Orange coach Jim Boeheim with big holes to fill. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Girard, one of five freshmen, has stepped up to the challenge, and he's well known in Orange country. He scored 434 points as an eighth-grader on the varsity at Glens Falls High School in eastern New York, the same school where one of his mentors, Jimmer Fredette, had wowed the locals a decade earlier before going on to lead the nation in scoring and earning national player of the year honors at BYU in 2011.
Girard put up another 4,329 points in his final four years, leading Glens Falls to a state championship as a senior. The Basketball Coaches Association of New York named him as its Mr. Basketball.
Girard picked Syracuse among several suitors and Boeheim inserted him in the starting lineup in the third game of the season. He responded by scoring a season-high 24 points against Seattle, hitting five 3-pointers.
New York state's all-time leading high school scorer had found his niche. He has started every game since, has reached double figures in scoring 10 times, and is averaging just under 12 points to rank third on the team. He's also third with 32 3-pointers in 96 attempts.
“Obviously, he can score, but he's done a much better job handling the ball playing the point guard position,” Boeheim said. "His ball-handling has been really solid for a freshman. His decision-making has been really good overall. He's having a tremendous year for a young player. He stepped in and has really stepped it up.”
Especially at the free throw line where he's on pace to break school records held by McNamara, now his position coach at Syracuse. Girard has 41 makes in 43 attempts (95.3%) to rank second nationally to senior Bryson Robinson of New Orleans. Girard is the only freshman in the top 30. McNamara, a catalyst for Syracuse's 2003 national championship team, was 435 of 490 (88.8%) in his career from 2002-06 and owns the top two season marks for accuracy — 90 of 99 (90.9%) as a freshman and 111 of 123 (90.2%) as a senior.
Girard's prowess at the line comes as no surprise. There’s a plaque at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with his name on it for winning a national free throw shooting competition when he was 11 years old.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey offers grudging appreciation of one that got away.
“We recruited him very hard and he decided to stay home. It certainly was a great decision,” Brey said. “He's certainly a hometown hero. Fearless kid. Great toughness. I just think he can have a Gerry McNamara-type of career there. He's a winner."
Girard also leads Syracuse with 23 steals and ranks second to Elijah Hughes in assists with 60 to go with 30 turnovers. And he's not afraid to take big shots, a trait well-developed during his impressive high school career where he also quarterbacked the football team to two state titles.
“He’s a fantastic person as a freshman,“ said Hughes, the Orange's leading scorer (19.6). ”A lot of people don’t realize the shots he’s taken that a lot of freshmen don’t have the nerve to take. He’s taken shots that have really been big for us, that have really helped us, that have given us that really competitive edge.”
Just not as competitive of an edge as Girard and his teammates would like. The Orange (8-7, 1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) have struggled to find any sort of consistency and have lost three straight conference games at home for the first time since the 1996-97 season in the Big East.
Girard did his part in the latest setback, scoring 10 points in the first half against Virginia Tech on Tuesday night. That helped stake the Orange to an 11-point lead they couldn't hold at the end in a 67-63 setback. Girard was held to two points after the break as the Hokies won for the first time in seven tries in the Carrier Dome.
Despite his youth, Girard also has embraced the role of taking charge.
“He’s been a real great leader and example in practice and on the court,” said sophomore guard Buddy Boeheim, the coach's youngest son. ”You love playing with a guy like that. He’s a competitor and he’s going to just keep getting better."
Added Girard: “Ït's been fun. I'm doing what I can. I just wish we had won more games.”
Freelance writers Mark Frank and Stew Koenig contributed.