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Unlikely heroes DeLaurier and O'Connell shine for gritty Duke men's basketball

<p>Alex O'Connell put together his first double-digit performance since Dec. 28.</p>

Alex O'Connell put together his first double-digit performance since Dec. 28.

SYRACUSE, N.Y.—Duke has been here before. Foul trouble on stars, opponents raining threes in the final minutes of play and the Blue Devils’ scoring relegated to the free throw line, all of which have been the tell-tale sign of a death knell for Duke. 

Yet Saturday night, in front of a raucous crowd of 30,000-plus itching for an upset, the Blue Devils refused to let the same failures of the past haunt them, earning a key road win to kick off a tough stretch of ACC play. Through poise seen on all stages of the game, the Blue Devils fought through foul trouble to make the plays they needed to build a lead, icing the game on the charity stripe, also benefitting from unexpected heroes Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell.

“We beat a really good team tonight,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Our kids had to hit pressure free throws, I think that was a key and Tre Jones was the key…. Down the stretch Tre didn’t turn it over, hit every free throw, beat traps and got the ball back. I’m really proud of him.”

Although Vernon Carey’s monstrous 26-point, 17-rebound performance deserves much of the credit for powering Duke to victory, the Blue Devils wouldn’t be leaving New York unscathed if it weren’t for explosive play from some unlikely heroes.

DeLaurier has always struggled with fouling, and tonight was no exception. In his first minute of play, DeLaurier was whistled twice. To make matters worse for the senior captain, he notched his third on an over-the-back call, a mental error that put him in foul trouble with about 10 minutes left in the first half.

However, rather than pulling the senior forward for the rest of the half, Krzyzewski let DeLaurier play on. The Shipman, Va., native made the most of his coach’s trust in him.

DeLaurier recorded eight points on 4-of-4 shooting, taking advantage of Duke’s driving wings to open up the zone just enough for him to score under the basket. The Blue Devil forward put the exclamation mark on his night while catching a cross-court heave from Jones in the final seconds of the first half, faking out two defenders to bring Duke within one possession.

Even while trying to minimize contact, the senior captain effectively put the clamps on Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes and Marek Dolezaj, who cooked Duke from the interior to spark an early Orange run. Although DeLaurier was the second of three Blue Devils to foul out, the forward’s smart play was key for Duke’s mid-game run.

“[Javin] caught the ball well,” Krzyzewski said. “He was 4-for-4 from the field and he caught some tough passes. The one in transition was a beautiful play in the last minute of the first half. We got that—all of a sudden we were down by one possession and boom, boom, boom we had a four-point lead at halftime.”

O’Connell’s junior year has been anything but consistent, with his long-range shooting tanking to 25 percent coming into Saturday and his minutes limited due to frequent defensive errors. However, despite coming off a cold stretch, the junior came off the bench for one of his biggest performances of the season Saturday, putting up his first double-digit scoring effort since Dec. 28.

While his younger teammates often looked startled when attacking the zone, O’Connell stayed poised through a jeering crowd. The junior Blue Devil rocketed bounce passes all around the arc, breaking Syracuse’s vaunted zone enough to give Duke clean lanes to drive. And when O’Connell decided to hold on to the ball, the junior Blue Devil capitalized with a solid 11-point showing. If the junior Blue Devil can keep up this pace of play through the rest of the conference season, Duke will have yet another piece to a historically deep squad.

“The last few games I wouldn’t say have been rough, I just haven’t been in as much as any college player would like to,” O’Connell said. “Tonight, I was taking advantage of the minutes I was given and I feel like I did that to a pretty good extent. I was just trying to attack the zone, get my guys open shots or shoot the ball on my own.”

Although the Blue Devils were able to build a double-digit lead in the second half, Duke had to expel one final demon to come away with the win—free throw shooting.

Coming into the contest shooting 67.2 percent from the charity stripe—good for 277th in the nation—the Blue Devils couldn’t afford to leave any points on the table after Syracuse opted to play hack-a-Blue Devil over the final three minutes of play. Though free throws have previously doomed Duke, the Blue Devils thrived on the line, making 29 of 33 free throws. Jones, a sometimes spotty shooter from the line at 71.2 percent before Saturday, stayed clutch down the stretch with a perfect 10-for-10 ledger to keep Duke’s lead afloat.

With two back-to-back road games ahead, the Blue Devils will need all their wits about them to survive in hostile environments. But if Duke’s play against Syracuse is anything to go off of, this crop of Blue Devils has the nerves to see even the toughest conference game through to the end.

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