SYRACUSE, N.Y.—With Syracuse leading 21-14 and Blue Devil big men Vernon Carey Jr., Javin DeLaurier and Matthew Hurt all with two fouls in the first 11 minutes, Duke was in dangerous territory in the early going.
Rather than keel over and succumb to the pressure created by the 30,000-plus in attendance, Carey settled in and went to work against the undersized Orange frontcourt. The freshman phenom powered the Blue Devils back in front, leading a 35-18 run, with a team-high 26 points and career-high 17 rebounds as No. 9 Duke left the Carrier Dome with a 97-88 victory.
"They really didn’t have an answer for him tonight. With the 17 rebounds tonight, he was just unstoppable," sophomore point guard Tre Jones said. "We knew he was gonna be able to dominate. They don't really have a big to match up with him or even a couple that can match up with him. So I thought let's just try to have him seal guys down low, continue to bury guys and just try to find him. We were doing that throughout the entire game and it really paid off."
"Strong as hell," added senior captain Jack White.
The Blue Devils (18-3, 8-2 in the ACC) used a pair of key runs to get back into the contest after the sluggish start from the field. Duke marched on a 7-0 run to knot the score at 21, and out of the break, the Blue Devils continued to flip the script from the opening minutes. Cassius Stanley quickly drained a triple and a pair of Carey makes gave Duke a 49-39 advantage, its largest lead of the night at the time.
The Blue Devils would stretch the lead to as much as 15 points at 71-56, but the Orange would not give in, cutting the deficit to as low as five points with less than four minutes remaining.
However, Stanley stormed up the court and converted an and-one to restore an eight-point edge with 3:01 on the clock. The Los Angeles native finished with 15 points. Fellow freshman Hurt had 12 points on the night, and Alex O’Connell added 11 in his strongest outing in recent memory as Duke showcased its balance once again. Another welcome development for the Blue Devils was their uncharacteristically strong performance from the charity stripe, as they went 29-of-33 on free throws.
"As a point guard it is my job to hit free throws, but as a team we know free throws is the thing that is going to help us to win at the end of the day," said Jones—who made all 10 of his attempts. "We’ve learned from the past that missing free throws hurt us down the stretch and so we really need to focus on free throws and on making those throughout the entire game."
Carey and DeLaurier benefitted from getting more minutes alongside each other than they’d become accustomed to with freshman Wendell Moore Jr.’s returning to the lineup Saturday. After missing the last six contests with a fracture in his left hand, Moore shored up the Blue Devils’ defense with his ability to guard the one through four. Duke clamped down on the Orange perimeter threats, holding Syracuse (13-9, 6-5) to a dismal 6-for-26 performance from deep.
Marek Dolezaj keyed the Orange’s strong start by attacking Duke’s big men and causing much of the foul trouble. Dolezaj led Syracuse with 22 points on the night, but his teammates could not give him much help, as the home team lost its grasp midway through the first half. The Blue Devils shut down the Orange’s leading scorer Elijah Hughes, holding him to a dismal 1-for-9 performance from downtown.
"We tried to pick them up early. When you don’t get to walk into your offense that changes rhythm a little bit. I think they were in real good shape, but it gets their legs a little bit and then we give them an amazing amount of attention," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "For most of the game, right until the end, we did not give up transition threes.... Running out of that zone, that’s one of the things the last couple days we practiced. We’ve got to get back. That’s why we did not press so our guards could get back."
After struggling to contain many of the ACC big men he was forced to guard in Moore’s absence, DeLaurier feasted offensively while playing at the four. The Shipman, Va., native compiled one of his more efficient performances of the season with eight points on a perfect effort from the field, despite battling foul trouble throughout the contest. DeLaurier would foul out late in the second half, one of three Blue Devils to do so.
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Saturday’s victory at Syracuse was a crucial start to the Blue Devils’ toughest stretch of the season. Duke will remain on the road for another week with battles at Boston College and North Carolina, before returning home for a likely top-10 matchup against Florida State Feb. 10.
"I like playing on the road, it’s fun. It’s fun to interact with other fans at their gym, and the other players," O'Connell said. "It’s just fun to be on the road and be in that environment where people are trying to get in your head and mess with you. I really enjoy it."