After a week of uncertainty and emotion, Saturday finally arrived, as did 35,642 faithful Orange fans. On Wednesday, it was reported that Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim struck and killed a pedestrian with his car. It was unclear if he would resume his coaching duties on Saturday, but Syracuse University Athletic Director John Wildhack announced that Boeheim would coach against the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils on Saturday.
After a heartfelt moment of silence and announcement before the tipoff, the much-awaited contest got underway. Syracuse (18-5, 9-5) was coming off a much-needed, and quite frankly, dominant, 69-49 win over No. 18 Louisville in the Carrier Dome. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils had seen better weeks, losing Zion Williamson, arguably the most talented player in college basketball, in the first minute of their rivalry game against UNC. They would go on to get upset in Cameron Indoor Stadium, losing 88-72.
Back on January 14, Syracuse shocked the basketball world with a 95-91 overtime victory at Duke, and the excitement around the rematch was palpable. On the heels of a loss to their bitter rivals and the loss of their star player, the Blue Devils came in seeking vengeance, pulling away down the stretch and defeating Syracuse 75-65.
The largest on-campus crowd of all time helped the Orange weather the storm in the first half, with the energy in the Dome giving life to the zone. Only one Duke player managed to make more than one field goal in the first half, but it happened to be RJ Barrett. Barrett made eight shots on eleven attempts, notching 17 points and pairs of assists and rebounds in the first twenty minutes. Without Williamson, Duke’s offense could not work from the inside out as they like to do, and the zone took advantage. The Blue Devils shot a mere 3-15 from three and only went to the free throw line twice. Williamson’s absence was apparent on the glass as well, as the Orange out-rebounded the Blue Devils 24-17 in the first half.
Offensively speaking, it was a slow half for Syracuse, shooting just 37 percent from the field and only managing two free throw attempts. Frank Howard led the first-half scoring with ten and Marek Dolezaj came off the bench for 6 on an efficient 3-5 shooting, but the usual scoring suspects were noticeably quiet. Tyus Battle, Elijah Hughes, and Oshae Brissett combined for just 14 total first-half points. In a game with Duke missing one of their best players, and defensive weapon, Syracuse managed to take a 34-29 lead at halftime, but shooting struggles prevented the Orange from ever building a significant lead.
The story of the second-half was that one team got hot from behind the arc, and the other didn’t. Duke’s Alex O’Connell played all twenty second-half minutes and poured in 17 points on 4-6 shooting from three, and the Blue Devils shot 6-14 from deep as a team. Syracuse managed just one triple in the second half, shooting a mere nine percent from three.
The Syracuse defense weathered Duke’s offensive attack the best they could, for as long as they could. With around 15 minutes to play, Alex O’Connell drew a foul on a made three. After converting the four-point play, he converted from deep again, giving Duke a 48-44 lead, a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the game. Syracuse did everything they could to remain competitive in this one; crashing the boards, forcing turnovers, and making Duke beat them from deep; but the cold shooting on the offensive end proved too costly to overcome.
Duke will travel to Virginia Tech on Tuesday. Going forward, it does not get any easier for Syracuse, who is back on the bubble for another year. They will travel to No. 8 North Carolina for a matchup on Tuesday at 9:00, while a home matchup against No. 3 Virginia awaits on March 4.