SYRACUSE, N.Y.—Duke’s first-ever ACC matchup with Syracuse was a game of second chances, and in the end, the Orange made the most of those opportunities.
Decided by just two points, Saturday’s heavyweight matchup swung back-and-forth, with each team attempting to land a knockout blow before the other responded. Ultimately, it was the smallest differences that mattered the most.
From the opening tip, undefeated Syracuse put the Blue Devils on the defensive, ultimately holding the lead for 70 percent of the game. Duke matched every punch, answering each Orange run with a run of its own and clawing back into the contest with the help of some unlikely heroes.
But No. 2 Syracuse made the most of its last shot at redemption, earning the win despite falling behind by three points in overtime on two separate occasions.
“This team just doesn’t seem to be bothered when something doesn’t go in or [the opponent] makes a three at the start of overtime,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said.
For much of the contest, Duke exemplified resiliency. After missing their first four shots from beyond the arc and shooting just 33.3 percent from long range against the Syracuse zone in the first half, the Blue Devils entered the break trailing by just three points, thanks in large part to second efforts on the offensive end from forwards Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson. The duo combined for five offensive rebounds in the half and 11 overall to help Duke to 22 second-chance points.
On the other end of the floor, however, Jefferson and Parker both ultimately suffered from Syracuse’s own second efforts on the glass. Both picked up their fourth fouls in the middle of the second half after Duke gave up offensive rebounds, leaving head coach Mike Krzyzewski without his two most effective rim protectors. The Orange took advantage of Duke's smaller lineup, going on a 12-3 run that appeared to put the game away.
But the Blue Devils kept themselves in the contest, and as it drew to a close, another Duke player took charge of the comeback.
This time, senior guard Tyler Thornton made the most of his second chance. Given the start at the sold-out Carrier Dome, Thornton struggled to make an impact in the first half—opening the game with a three that clanked off the top of the backboard and a foul on Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis, Thornton played just four minutes in the first half.
Just as the Orange had begun to pull away late in the game, however, in stepped Thornton. With Duke trailing 66-59, the biggest deficit of the night, the guard connected from long-range on three consecutive possessions, pulling the Blue Devils within two. Baskets from Parker and Rasheed Sulaimon tied the game at 75, and after falling behind by one again with just 31 seconds left, Duke had the opportunity to hold for a potential game-winner.
“We were scrambling a lot because of our foul trouble, and our kids scrambled well,” Krzyzewski said. “They scrambled well enough to put us in a position to win.”
Duke blew its shot, losing the ball beneath their own basket and just 4.6 seconds to go. But the Blue Devils had another chance. Down three and without a timeout to use, Duke got Sulaimon the ball for one last shot, and the sophomore—who had received plenty of attention earlier in the season for his struggles—connected at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.
With his shot, Sulaimon gave the Blue Devils life, but in the end, the Orange made sure not to give Duke any other chances at coming back. Holding another three-point lead with just nine seconds to go in overtime, Boeheim kept the Blue Devils from firing off any 3-pointers by fouling.
“At the end of regulation, C.J. tried to get the foul. I didn’t take a time out to tell everybody [to foul],” Boeheim said. “I wasn’t sure—with 4.6 [seconds], coming all the way up, you usually have to take a throw, which they did. It just happened to go in. But in the overtime, we fouled. It does leave [your opponent] open if you make a mistake, but it worked.”
The Orange’s decision to foul paid off, burning a few seconds and helping Syracuse to secure the win as the final seconds ticked away on Duke's final comeback attempt.
"We just needed one more play, whether it was a rebound or a shot going in," graduate student Andre Dawkins said. "We just needed one play."The Blue Devils never got that one last play, but they'll have at least one more shot at Syracuse. When the Orange make the trip to Durham Feb. 22, both teams will be sure to make the most of every opportunity.