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No. 1 Duke men's basketball falls to Syracuse, battling poor shooting and injuries

<p>Without Tre Jones, Duke had no answer to Syracuse's explosive offense and zone defense.</p>

Without Tre Jones, Duke had no answer to Syracuse's explosive offense and zone defense.

All season long, Duke has relied on its star-studded freshman class. But missing two of the Blue Devils’ five-star underclassmen, glaring weaknesses in Duke’s game showed through.

Without both Tre Jones’ facilitation—after the freshman point guard went down with a shoulder injury in the first half—and Cam Reddish due to an illness, Duke found it difficult to score against Syracuse’s zone. In a back-and-forth game that saw 18 ties and 13 lead changes, the Orange defeated Duke 95-91 in overtime Monday evening at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

“You can assume that everything is always going to be great, but life happens,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Life happened to our team tonight and some unusual things.”

Freshman Zion Williamson had a chance to take the lead with 15 seconds left in regulation, but only made one of his free throws, tying the game at 85 and giving the Orange a chance to score and win the game. Syracuse’s leading scorer Tyus Battle pulled up for a 3-pointer, but missed, sending the game to an extra session. 

In overtime, sophomore Alex O’Connell took the lead for Duke (14-2, 3-1 in the ACC) with a triple of his own, but Battle answered with a pull-up jumper in response. O’Connell then delivered a lackadaisical pass that was intercepted by Frank Howard, resulting in a breakaway layup. 

It was clear that the battle wore on the Blue Devils, as they struggled to hit their shots and were slow to get back on defense. Syracuse (12-5, 3-1) took advantage and attacked the paint relentlessly to eventually secure the win. A 3-pointer by freshman R.J. Barrett brought Duke within two points with little more than a minute left to go, but it was not enough. The Orange answered once again with an alley-oop, the final nail in the coffin on a nail-biting shootout.

The Orange struck first coming out of halftime with an alley-oop layup to take a one-point lead. Williamson, who finished with 35 points and 10 rebounds, answered with a drive of his own, earning a trip to the free-throw line. After missing his second free throw, junior Jack White ignited a spark in the Blue Devils with an offensive rebound leading to a layup by Marques Bolden, increasing Duke’s lead to two. This energy was reciprocated by the rest of the team, as O’Connell had three near steals in a row and hit a 3-pointer to increase Duke’s lead to six. 

The Orange would not go away, however, answering every Blue Devil make with one of their own. Battle continued to push the tempo, and his coast-to-coast dunk put Syracuse within three points. The Orange trailed for most of the second half, but never backed down to Duke. Syracuse hit 11 3-pointers as a team on 35-of-80 shooting from the field, which efficiently and effectively kept them in the game. Center Paschal Chukwu made a putback layup with three minutes left in the game to give Syracuse the lead for the first time since the beginning of the second half. 

Battle, who finished with 32 points on 12-of-28 shooting, played a big role in helping the Orange get back in the game. His constant attack in the open floor and willingness to let his teammates contribute left Duke’s defense in the dust.

Jones came out with a fire in his eyes on defense, earning back-to-back steals leading to easy fast-break points. He also kept the offense moving against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. However, after diving for a steal and colliding with Howard, Jones left the game and never returned to the bench.

“They’re a really good team. I didn’t think we handled it as well as I would have wanted,” Krzyzewski said. “In the second half we fought like crazy, and we missed so many open shots.”

Without their true point guard’s lockdown backcourt defense and his playmaking against the zone, the Blue Devils allowed the Orange to get back into the game with an 11-4 run, decreasing Duke’s 12 point lead to just five. Duke could not consistently penetrate Syracuse’s zone, as it did not spread the floor well enough, shooting a putrid 9-of-43 from the 3-point line. Barrett finished one assist from a triple-double with 23 points and 16 rebounds, but shot just 8-of-30 from the floor and attempted 17 3-pointers.

“The fact is our kids fought like crazy and put themselves against a very veteran team,” Krzyzewski said. “One of the most veteran in the country, and well coached. We put ourselves in a position to win but we weren’t able to do it.”

The Blue Devils will face arguably their toughest matchup of the year against No. 4 Virginia Saturday at 6 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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