SYRACUSE, N.Y.—With an open floor in front of him and just five seconds to play, Syracuse guard John Gillon pushed the ball past midcourt.
The clock ticked down, but the Orange veteran remained calm, finding enough space between three Blue Devils to get off one final shot.
And just as Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson all turned to look, Gillon’s prayer kissed perfectly off the glass and Syracuse students stormed the Carrier Dome floor.
Despite a scorching offensive start from Duke freshman Jayson Tatum, it was the Orange offense that proved too much for the No. 10 Blue Devils down the stretch, as Gillon’s triple at the buzzer sent Syracuse to a 78-75 victory Wednesday night. After the Duke defense limited the Orange to just 8-of-23 shooting in the first 20 minutes, Syracuse erupted to knock down 70.8 percent of its second-half field goal attempts.
“We had chances to put them away,” Kennard said. “We had chances to create a run, but we didn’t execute, we weren’t really aggressive and we didn’t get stops. Our talk faded away toward the end of the game.”
Before Gillon’s last-second heave, the Blue Devils had an opportunity of their own to grab the lead in the game’s final 10 seconds.
Kennard had the ball in his hands on the right wing, but with the shot clock nearing zero, the sophomore forced up a jumper in traffic that clanked off the back iron.
“We knew we would have a chance to get a shot toward the end of the clock but we weren’t able to execute,” Kennard said. “I shot a bad shot, honestly, but again, we shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place with how the game was played.”
Facing an eight-point halftime deficit, the Orange (17-12, 9-7 in the ACC) appeared the more determined side at the outset of the second half. Syracuse cut into Duke’s cushion with a 7-0 run in less than two minutes thanks to five early points from Gillon, who decimated the Blue Devil defense for 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting and six assists.
The Orange defense also turned up the heat after the break, clamping down on Tatum—who started the second half 0-of-2 from the field with two turnovers.
“Defensively, this was one our better efforts all year,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “Duke is a tremendous offensive basketball team, but defensively we were better…. We forced them into tough shots.”
From there, the game got physical and Duke (22-6, 10-5) found itself in foul trouble. With just fewer than eight minutes to play, Kennard, Frank Jackson and Grayson Allen all had picked up four personal fouls as the game continued to be a back-and-forth affair.
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Graduate student Amile Jefferson then stepped up inside when his team needed him most. The Philadelphia native scored 11 of the Blue Devils' final 16 points to keep the team afloat as Tyus Battle—who had 18 points, including multiple key late jumpers—and Syracuse continued relentlessly attacking a passive Duke defense.
“Their offensive execution was just a lot better in the second half,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “The first half was slow. They started pushing the ball a little bit more and we didn’t push as much in the second half.”
After a Tyler Lydon tip-in gave the Orange a 71-70 lead, Allen silenced the Syracuse faithful, drilling a 3-pointer to put Duke back up a pair.
But with a little less than a minute remaining, a Gillon layup tied the affair at 75, setting the stage for the late-game drama.
“[Gillon] got hot there in the second half for a stretch and hit very big shots for them,” Allen said. “He’s hit a lot of big shots for them all year, so we knew that would happen if we let him get going.”
Although Syracuse seemed like it could not miss in the second half, the Orange looked lost to start the game. Duke held Syracuse without a made basket for more than seven minutes midway through the opening period, but missed several opportunities in transition that would have extended its eight-point halftime lead.
A week removed from a career-best 28-point performance at then-No. 14 Virginia, Tatum was hot from the get-go, posting a double-double in the first half with 14 points and 10 boards before intermission.
"[Tatum] is a great scorer, so he can go one-on-one and he’s really stepped up his game for us,” Allen said. “I don’t think he’s necessarily getting more looks, but he’s being more efficient and he’s attacking the glass very hard.”
But with the Orange defense keying on Tatum late in the game, it was Kennard who had to deliver down the stretch.
The sophomore was tasked with breaking down Syracuse’s 2-3 zone from the free-throw line, yet still found plenty of opportunities from long distance. Kennard hit on 3-of-5 3-point attempts in the second half and finished with 23 points to lead Duke’s offensive effort.
The Blue Devils’ missed chances in transition on both ends of the court, however, cost Duke a chance to extend its winning streak to eight as it ultimately wasted 16 offensive rebounds.
The Blue Devils will play their second road game of the week Saturday afternoon when they head to Miami.
“It hurts, especially to lose on a buzzer-beater,” Kennard said. “It’s tough, but at the same time, we can’t dwell on this.... We want to continue to win. We have to learn, move forward and get ready for the next one.”
No. 8 North Carolina's win against No. 7 Louisville Wednesday means Duke sits two games back of the Tar Heels in the ACC standings with three games left and the teams' rematch on tap in 10 days.
A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."