SYRACUSE, N.Y.—As perhaps the most successful coach in college basketball history, rarely is Mike Krzyzewski desperate.
Yet, Saturday night, Duke’s head coach looked to be just that.
With the Blue Devils’ star Zion Williamson out with a knee injury, Krzyzewski immediately pulled a curious stunt, inserting Alex O’Connell into the starting lineup for the first time this season, alongside Javin DeLaurier, who has not started in more than a month.
Krzyzewski’s puzzling decisions did not stop with his starting five—burning Joey Baker’s redshirt eligibility in favor of entering him into contest for the first time all season. Fortunately, Coach K's kitchen-sink approach worked, and his top-ranked Duke team prevailed, taking down Syracuse 75-65 at the Carrier Dome behind a game-high 30 points from freshman R.J. Barrett.
"Thursday for me was one of the toughest 24 hours that I’ve had as a coach at Duke. One, getting over the psychological stuff that happened to our team. We were knocked back," Krzyzewski said. "I said, 'Look, we just went through hell for 24 hours, and I could depend on everybody.' We need to be that team on Saturday where you can depend on anyone, and they were. I’m really proud of my team."
Despite trailing by five at the break, the Blue Devils made the second half a back-and-forth affair. The teams traded leads, with neither team holding a double-digit advantage until Duke's 11-point edge in the final minute.
The Blue Devils came out of the locker room strong, and an O’Connell 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring gave Duke (24-3, 12-2 in the ACC) a 38-37 advantage, putting the visitors back in front for the first time since midway through the opening half. A few Blue Devil possessions later, O’Connell sunk a contested three from the right corner, and contact from Frank Howard sent the Roswell, Ga., native to the line for a pivotal four-point play.
Starting O’Connell proved to be key for Duke—the sophomore guard made a considerable impact in his new role, sinking a game-high five shots from deep. His 20 points were a career high as well, surpassing his previous best of 16, which came against Syracuse last month.
"They play a zone defense, so I wanted to space out and make sure that my teammates have confidence in my shooting, and tonight, I did that," O'Connell said. "I was making sure all night that [my teammates] attack the middle of the zone, and I’ll be spaced ready to shoot for them."
With a record-breaking crowd packing into the Carrier Dome, the pro-Orange energy immediately filled the building. Syracuse (21-7, 9-5) fed off the environment, and the building nearly popped when Howard hit a 3-pointer following a Paschal Chukwu offensive rebound to open the night’s scoring.
The Blue Devils struggled to keep their opponents off the offensive glass for the entirety of the first half. Just a few minutes after the night's opening score, Howard hit a nearly identical shot from the right corner off an Oshae Brissett board,
On the evening, the Orange pulled down 19 offensive rebounds.
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Barrett almost single-handedly kept Duke in the contest during the opening period, as he led all scorers with 17 points in the half. In the final minute of the period, Barrett quieted the crowd with consecutive inside buckets, including a beautifully executed spin move in the low post.
"Overall, R.J. was the guy today," Krzyzewski said. "His toughness and his defense [stood out]—he doesn’t usually guard inside, and with [Oshae] Brissett playing so well and posting up a lot, he did a really good job."
Barrett and O’Connell tore apart Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, combining for 50 points on an efficient 20-for-29 performance. Although the Blue Devils did not need much scoring outside of their leading tandem, the remaining Duke players struggled mightily, hitting just 6-of-30 field goal attempts with only four bench points.
In another twist, junior forward Jack White did not appear in the contest. The Duke captain entered the night averaging 23.2 minutes per game, but White has missed his last 25 3-pointers and may have fallen out of the team's rotation for the time being.
The Blue Devils will have the opportunity to follow up their seventh true road victory of the season Tuesday, as they travel to take on No. 20 Virginia Tech. Following the matchup with the Hokies, Duke will have just three more regular-season contests on the slate, hosting Miami and Wake Forest before trekking to Chapel Hill for a rematch with No. 8 North Carolina.