BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Survive and advance.
That mantra might resonate more with the NCAA tournament, but when a conference title is on the line, it rings true all the same.
Duke, in its 88-79 conquest against an inspired Syracuse, got its first taste of that all-to-familiar slogan Thursday. Via 26 points and eight assists from Wendell Moore Jr. and arguably the best performance of Jeremy Roach’s college career, the first taste proved sweet when the clock hit zeroes.
“It was a hell of a game. I’m proud of my guys for especially executing down the stretch, Wendell [Moore] really led us,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Part of the introduction to March basketball is the need to close. Oftentimes, the first 38 minutes are forgotten in favor of a singular key moment down the stretch.
For Duke, a group that has faced questions from pundits regarding the presence of a closer, that key moment was delivered by Roach. Clinging to a three-point lead and the final minute fast approaching, the ball was swung to Moore, who got downhill and looked like he was about to put it up in a sea of big men.
But at the last second, using a nifty wrap-around delivery, the captain found Roach on the left wing. Without hesitation, the Virginia native launched a triple that found nothing but nylon, sending the nervous pro-Duke section of the Barclays Center into a tizzy.
Prior to that triple, Roach had compiled 16 points and four crucial triples. But those last three points, in the form of that last triple, saved the day for the Blue Devils.
“I was hot at that point obviously, but [Moore] has always trusted me to make that shot and I always trust him to do the same thing,” Roach said.
March also features desperation, and desperation often fuels sensational performances. Syracuse, sitting at 16-16 entering Thursday and without star guard Buddy Boeheim, was as desperate as it gets.
Add in the tradition and consistency under head coach Jim Boeheim, and there was no doubt that the Blue Devils were getting the Orange’s best shot in this one.
“It elevated our conference,” Krzyzewski said on what adding Syracuse meant to the ACC. “To have [Jim Boeheim] come in just adds a level of prestige and also accomplishment.”
Jim Boeheim threw the kitchen sink at the Blue Devils, even deviating from his gospel—the vaunted 2-3 zone—for brief stretches. Utilizing a triangle-and-two, a blend between man and zone that was intended to limit AJ Griffin and Mark Williams, the Orange gave themselves a shot late.
“I thought it gave us a little bit of an edge, and then we switched back to the zone. We knew that there’s gonna be some shots available for Moore and Roach, and Roach ultimately made the key baskets that won the game for them,” Jim Boeheim said on going to the triangle-and-two.
Not to mention that day’s work that Jimmy Boeheim put in. While his younger brother, donning a dark blue tracksuit, could only cheer from the end of the bench, the Cornell transfer was simply relentless en route to 28 points and 6-of-9 from distance.
“Jimmy coming into the game was 0-for-7 in the last three games from three,” Krzyzewski said. “So he played like a big-time player, and he is a big-time player. He had a sensational performance, not a good one.”
Even the nine-point margin does a disservice to just how tight this contest was down the stretch. With 3:32 to go, the Orange led by one thanks to an endless barrage of triples—for the entire afternoon, Syracuse nailed 13 threes, some of which were from Queens.
Yet when it came down to crunch time, the Blue Devils delivered. Williams, for his part, was a stymying force defensively, compiling three rejections and holding Syracuse’s center duo of Bourama Sidibe and Frank Anselem to just six points and nine rebounds.
“I thought it was Mark’s best half this year,” Krzyzewski said of the sophomore big man’s performance over the final 20 minutes.
Krzyzewski was right. Going into the locker room at the break, Williams did not have a single point. After a career-high 28 points against Syracuse late last month, the Virginia Beach, Va., native was just not getting the rock enough.
That changed in crunch time.
“His coach played defense on him, I didn’t give him the ball,” Krzyzewski said with a wry smile. “My staff at halftime said, ‘think we should get Mark the ball,’ so it was a great suggestion.”
When you combine the playmaking of Moore, the clutch shooting of Roach and the interior dominance of Williams, you get what you got at the end of this tight contest—a narrow Duke victory.
In March, you don’t need everyone to be special, but down the stretch, you need a few key pieces to step up in key moments.
Those moments, the ones that define this month, came early for Duke. But ultimately, it responded, and is moving on to face Miami.
Welcome to March, Blue Devils.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.