OMAHA, Neb.— The Blue Devil sideline showcased a range of emotions Friday night.
At times, there was frustration, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski watched his young team struggle to get open looks against the Syracuse zone. At times, there was excitement as Duke countered every punch the Orange threw at it in a gritty, back-and-forth affair.
But in the end, there was relief, as the Blue Devils made enough scrappy plays to win on a night when Duke struggled mightily from the floor.
The second-seeded Blue Devils survived a scare from No. 11 seed Syracuse with a 69-65 win in the Sweet 16 at the CenturyLink Center. After leading by as many as nine, Duke needed a few timely plays in the final moments to set up a matchup with top-seeded Kansas Sunday at 5:05 p.m. for a spot in the Final Four.
“Earlier in the year, we lost a couple games that we lost our poise, and we made wrong decisions in crunch time, so I think those games helped us kind of relax and know what to do in a game like this,” freshman Marvin Bagley III said. “Obviously the Sweet 16 is a big game, so I think the games we had in the past kind of prepared us for that.
With the Blue Devils (29-7) nursing a 63-55 lead, guard Tyus Battle canned a deep triple to keep the Orange within reach of a late comeback. After a deep jumper by Oshae Brissett cut the margin to three, Duke guard Gary Trent Jr. hit a floater in the middle of the lane to push the lead back to five.
Although Syracuse (23-14) trimmed the deficit to two with less than 10 seconds left, Trent knocked down two clutch free throws to seal the win for the Blue Devils.
“I just have confidence in myself,” Trent said. “I shoot numerous free throws all the time and whenever I step up to the line, I think they’re going to go in.”
Despite shooting just 5-of-26 from deep, the Blue Devils got enough plays from Bagley late to eke out a victory. The big man worked his way to open spots in the zone and proved to be a nightmare for the Orange above the rim or on the low block. Bagley finished with 22 points—passing Jabari Parker’s Duke freshman season scoring record—on 8-of-12 shooting.
After going on a 10-0 run to close out the first half, the Blue Devils let Syracuse back into the game as the Orange scored the first six points of the second half. With frustration building as Duke struggled to get the ball in the paint—prompting Krzyzewski to remove his jacket and call a timeout just a minute into the half—Syracuse closed the margin to 38-37 and put the Blue Devils on their heels.
“[Coach] said, ‘Yo, this is March Madness. There’s no more second chances. Let’s go. Let’s get it going,’" freshman Wendell Carter Jr. said. “That resonated with everybody. We just went out and got back to what we’re supposed to be doing.
The Blue Devils raised their intensity, and a corner triple by Trent elicited a fist pump from Krzyzewski. After forcing a 10-second violation with its full-court pressure on the ensuing possession, Duke got an open triple from Allen to push the lead to 48-39 and bring the Blue Devil contingent in Omaha to its feet.
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Following the consecutive triples, Duke struggled to remain hot from the floor, as Allen and Trent failed to connect time and time again on open looks. The guards combined to miss their last nine shots from deep, and the Blue Devils struggled to put the Orange away.
“Over the years, I’ve been really good about letting guys shoot,” said Krzyzewski, who earned his 1,100th career win. “And I just tell them, I just say, ‘Shoot it.’ But the main thing is the next shot is the next shot. You don’t win by thinking back on a shot you missed. You have to be positive, and our guys are.”
Bagley picked up the slack and touched the ball on nearly every possession down the stretch. When he wasn’t finishing alley-oops above Syracuse’s zone, the freshman was beating the Orange bigs to offensive rebounds and making the hustle plays needed to send Duke to its first Elite Eight since 2015.
Unlike the sloppy slugfest from a month ago, this time’s matchup between the teams featured a faster pace at the outset. The Orange attacked the Blue Devil zone by looking to Paschal Chukwu for lobs and relied on the shooting ability of Battle—who led his team with 19 points—to spread the floor.
On the other end, Duke played through Bagley and Carter and took advantage of the bigs’ ability to get to the foul line. As the freshmen had their way down low, the Blue Devils opened up the floor for Allen and Trent and get open looks.
“We’re both different,” Krzyzewski said. “The game we played in Durham, I didn’t think either team played very well. We were kind of at the end of an energy cycle where we had played a bunch of games in a row, and they had lost some games. We’re both better teams now than we were in February.”
Although Syracuse finished a number of highlight-reel slams, the Orange were also hurt by 12 first-half turnovers as they occasionally forced lobs into tight spaces. Duke held Syracuse scoreless for the last 5:20 of the first half to take a 34-27 lead after 20 minutes of play.
The Orange slowly chipped away at the Blue Devil lead early in the second half, and the teams traded shots for much of the second half. With Duke working to keep a pesky Syracuse team at arm’s length, the Blue Devils closed well at the foul line—an area they struggled at earlier this season—and survived to see another day.
With its first taste of late-game tournament pressure in the rearview mirror, Duke will now look to put forth a complete effort to top the guard-heavy Jayhawks and advance to San Antonio.