A half-hour before tip-off of Syracuse’s opening game against the Memphis Tigers at New York’s Madison Square Garden, most of the Orangemen were lackadaisically going through some stretching and light shooting exercises. The atmosphere was loose as the team prepared for its first test of the year.

But if taking things easy during warm-ups was part of Syracuse’s typical pre-game agenda, someone forgot to tell Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara.

The two freshmen were caught up in an intense series of one-on-one drills. Inside and outside. Back to the rim and faced up. Each guarded the other fiercely, making his teammate struggle to get off a shot. It was only the first game of the season, but both players were treating it like the biggest contest of their lives.

Whoever coined the phrase “you practice the way you play” must have had these two in mind. Forty minutes, and a combined 41 points later, the two had played possibly the biggest games of their lives, leaving their mark on the hallowed Garden floor and almost single-handedly thrusting their team to victory in the AT&T Wireless Classic.

In the end, Syracuse came up short on several key possessions late in the game and suffered a seven-point loss at the hands of the Tigers. But Anthony and McNamara could not be faulted for their efforts, as each did everything humanly possible to secure a Syracuse win.

After playing 78 of a possible 80 combined minutes, the pair simply ran out of gas late in the second half. The freshmen got very little help from veterans such as Kueth Duany and Jeremy McNeil. Head coach Jim Boeheim, who was disappointed with the lack of production from his upperclassmen, attributed the speed bumps Anthony and McNamara hit down the stretch to fatigue.

“We didn’t have good balance,” said Boeheim. “We made the freshmen do too much. You play for 40 minutes, you’re gonna get tired.”

Anthony, who scored only six of his game-high 27 points in the second half, missed several free throws down the stretch that could have inched Syracuse closer to a victory. McNamara missed his last five three-point attempts before fouling out.

But despite the loss, Syracuse learned some positive things about its highly touted freshmen and should be optimistic about the young season.

A sensation at national prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and a McDonald’s High School All-American, Anthony was a star before he ever put on a college uniform. In fact, he almost never had the chance to put on a college uniform, coming close to bypassing school altogether for the NBA.

But last Thursday, the Baltimore, Md. native took the court wearing Syracuse ? not NY Knicks ? orange and blue and wasted little time making his presence felt. After missing his first shot, Anthony took an outlet pass from forward Hakim Warrick and threw down a two-handed tomahawk jam that catapulted the crowd into a frenzy and let the college basketball world know he had arrived.

From that point on, Anthony was a force that could not be stopped. Recording a double-double in points and rebounds in his collegiate debut, Anthony had the best ever opening game by a Syracuse freshman.

In a demonstration of genuine awe, the fans repeatedly let out deep bellows in unison after Anthony pulled off several moves that looked like they came straight from the “And1” video series. Admiring coaches who witnessed Anthony’s “coming out party” gushed over his offensive prowess and versatility.

“We trapped him in the post a little bit, we trapped him on the wing, we trapped him on drives but he still scored,” said Memphis head coach John Calipari. “The guy had 27 points, 11 rebounds as a freshman and at times was dominating. He’s a good player.”

Georgia head coach Jim Harrick, who watched the game from the stands the night before his Bulldogs played Texas on day two of the tournament, praised the play of the 18-year-old forward as well.

“Carmelo was outstanding. He was simply phenomenal,” said Harrick. “He played parts of the game like a freshman, but he has unlimited potential.”

Harrick, who has a NCAA championship and National Coach of the Year award to his credit, echoed the sentiment that Anthony’s missed free throws were a result of exhaustion.

The other half of Syracuse’s diaper dandy dynamic duo is point guard McNamara. As a prep, McNamara earned several distinctions while playing at Bishop Hannan High School, including 2002 Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year and fourth team Parade All-American honors. Listed at 6’2”, the Scranton, Pa. native is an undeniable floor leader. Confident handling the ball and not afraid to pull the trigger, McNamara has the ability to control the tempo of a game.

McNamara made very few mental mistakes against Memphis, and looks to be the player who can provide the court structure that Syracuse so sorely lacked last season.

Syracuse faces a relatively soft schedule until it begins Big East play in early January. This will give Anthony and McNamara lots of time to hone their skills as well as find their respective niches within the team concept.

The Orangemen may be 0-1 in the standings, but they have plenty to build on for the remainder of the season. The seeds have been planted, and as usual, it will be up to Boeheim to nurture their growth so they are in full bloom come March.

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