Call Duke the Grinch, because it shut down Christmas and stole Valentine’s Day from the Orange. Jahlil Okafor led the way, Tyus Jones chipped in six of the Blue Devils' 42 rebounds—10 more than what Syracuse grabbed— and No. 4 Duke overcame a what-could-have-been performance by former Blue Devil Michael Gbinije en route to a 80-72 win against the Orange Saturday night at the Carrier Dome. Although Duke just scraped by for the third straight time against an unranked ACC opponent, the visitors stole the show in the second half for a fifth straight victory.
Revisiting the three keys to the game:
- Stay aggressive against the zone: Syracuse blocked nine shots and freshman Jahil Okafor posted just seven first half points, but the Orange could not keep him or Duke’s sharp-shooting second-half offense in check. Okafor ended up with a team-high 23 points and the Blue Devils outscored their counterparts 40-38 in the paint en route to another come-from-behind victory.
- Push the pace: Syracuse outscored the Blue Devils 22-12 in transition, but Duke did what it wanted to do in getting the ball upcourt and into shooting position before the Orange could set up the 2-3 zone. A breakaway by Quinn Cook resulted in a monstrous Okafor jam, putting an exclamation point on Duke’s second-half run.
- Quiet the crowd: With a 34-23 Orange lead keeping a roaring 35,446 sellout crowd, Duke kept its composure and closed the half on a 13-5 run. Even after the Blue Devils took the lead and Syracuse crept back into the game late in the second half, Duke remained confident and left the Carrier Dome much quieter than it had been at the final buzzer just a season ago.
Three key plays:
- 3:08, first half: A Cook 3-pointer catapults the Blue Devils off the mat and sparks what ultimately amounts to a 26-7 run. Duke shot poorly for much of the first half but made four of its last seven from the field, including a beautiful back-and-forth passing sequence that left Justise Winslow open for a key 3-pointer late in the half. Syracuse hoped a timeout would stop the bleeding, but the momentum had already switched sides for good.
- 19:14, second half: Jahlil Okafor uses a Matt Jones dime to dunk home the first points of the half. The play sets the tone for what is to come: four more dunks and shut-down defense against Rakeem Christmas in 34 minutes played—the Chicago native’s most since a victory at then-No. 2 Virginia Jan. 31. Okafor went on to score six of Duke’s next 11 points en route to a 15-point second half.
- 15:34, second half: Another Okafor dunk is set up by Quinn Cook and further energizes a streaking Blue Devil team. Cook leads a two-on-one against Christmas and fakes going up for the layup, only to pass the ball behind his back and under the hoop to a waiting Okafor, who slams the ball home. The play caps a 26-7 Duke run.
Three key stats:
- Blue Devils shoot 6-of-6 compared to Syracuse’s 1-10 to open the second half: The Orange outshot Duke by hitting at a 48.4 percent clip in the first 20 minutes, including going 7-for-11 from beyond the arc. The second half, however, was a different animal, and a pivotal opening five minutes both put the Blue Devils in the driver’s seat and allowed Duke to ultimately outshoot Syracuse by a 46.7 percent to 36.4 percent margin in the 3-point department and 47.4 percent to 43.3 percent overall.
- Blue Devils go 19-of-22 from the charity stripe; Orange make just 6-of-13: They call it the charity stripe for a reason, but Syracuse struggled from the line all night. The Orange came in shooting 65.6 percent on free throws as a team this season. At the other end of the court, Quinn Cook led the way by shooting 7-of-8 on freebies, and even Okafor deposited three of his four attempts. Both the number of attempts— a function of a working, attacking offense— and strong execution by the Blue Devils made the difference in this tight ACC matchup.
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- Okafor outscores Christmas 23-11 and outrebounds him 13-6: The Chicago native dominated on both ends of the floor, pulling in his ninth double-double of the season. Senior center Rakeem Christmas entered the game as Syracuse's leading scorer with numbers even slightly better than Okafor's, but shot just 5-of-17 Saturday—compared to Okafor’s 10-for-15—and was never able to find a groove or make a significant impact on the game.
And the Duke game ball goes to… Jahlil Okafor
Okafor did not play his best in the first half, but he entered the second half with just one personal foul under his belt, and he quickly came alive, scoring eight of Duke’s first 13 points after the break. His throw-down off of Cook's nifty pass in transition took the juice out of the packed Carrier Dome and his strength attacking the basket separated him from both teammates and opponents.
And the Syracuse game ball goes to…Michael Gbinije
The former Blue Devil torched Duke in the first half, making five of his first six 3-pointers. Gbinije played all 40 minutes and grabbed six rebounds, making his season-average of 11 points look silly compared to the game-high 27 he poured in Saturday. Despite scoring eight points in the second half, he failed to make a 3-pointer after the break, a microcosm of Syracuse’s poor second-half shooting. Gbinije was absolutely lights-out and the Orange could have used a similarly marvelous performance by Christmas.