In gritty win against Baylor, No. 21 Duke men's basketball conjures the magic of Madison Square Garden

Jared McCain celebrates during Duke's win against Baylor at Madison Square Garden.
Jared McCain celebrates during Duke's win against Baylor at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK—An evening tipoff in the Big Apple is the dream for any fan of college basketball. For the 15,000 or so Blue Devil fans in attendance for their team’s victory Wednesday night, that dream came true, ensuring a paradoxically peaceful night of rest in the City that (seemingly) Never Sleeps.

The 7 p.m. title card between No. 21 Duke and No. 10 Baylor at Madison Square Garden — a 78-70 Blue Devil win — delivered on all the hype it produced. Two high-level programs eager to and capable of playing April games in Phoenix going toe-to-toe in the World’s Most Famous Arena, two all-star freshmen producing under the big city’s bright lights, two halves of thrilling basketball full of lead-changes and big plays — they were all there.

Crucially, so were the Duke fans. One could be forgiven for thinking it was Cameron Indoor Stadium with the level of noise the place generated, if Cameron Indoor possessed an extra 10,000 seats and occasionally swapped its hardwood for zambonis or Billy Joel.

Wednesday might as well have been a home game. It sure felt like one.

“What an honor to play in MSG,” head coach Jon Scheyer said postgame. “This has been a special place for us, especially right before Christmas … Just seeing the crowd show up and all the Duke fans in New York, what a special thing for these guys.”

Historically, New York has been an incredibly welcoming place for the Blue Devils, who have seen remarkable success inside its marquee arena. After the win against the Bears, Duke now holds an astounding 41-18 all-time record in Manhattan and has won six straight, with the latest triumph just the latest in a long string of them against the nation’s best programs.

In 2021, Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels whacked Kentucky to the tune of 47 combined points. In 2018, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett linked up for 83 points in a 34-point clobbering of the Wildcats, who as a team scored just one more point (84) than that lethal freshman trio. To a lesser scale last season, Mark Mitchell emerged as one of both his team’s and the country’s top defensive talents with a lockdown performance against Iowa. Madison Square Garden, especially recently, has been a staging ground for rookie liftoff, launching the Blue Devils upward with them.

On Wednesday night, it was Jared McCain’s turn to audition for his place in Duke folklore, and perhaps on nearby Broadway, too. The freshman guard was lights-out, shooting an efficient 7-of-11 from the floor, perfect from the line and 50% from three for a game-high 21 points. He also scored the dagger trey on a play which will undoubtedly occupy a paragraph in the Blue Devils’ lengthy New York anthology.

Deep in the second half, Jeremy Roach found a surging Ryan Young (playing perhaps his best few minutes of basketball in a Duke kit) in the paint, but instead of laying the ball in, the graduate center flipped it around to McCain at the corner on an island. The Sacramento, Calif., native was completely unguarded and had enough time to catch, breathe, jump, shoot and celebrate before a Baylor player even got close to him. The Bears never got close to the Blue Devils after that again, either, in part due to their own star freshman Ja’Kobe Walter seeing limited minutes with four fouls.

Jared McCain faces up with Tyrese Proctor in celebration after Baylor calls a timeout.
Jared McCain faces up with Tyrese Proctor in celebration after Baylor calls a timeout.

But it’s not just freshmen, and it’s not just the last few years. Look back even further in the annals of Blue Devil history and you reach March 28, 2010 — the South Regional Final of the NCAA tournament between Duke and Baylor when head coach Jon Scheyer was a player. He scored 20 in the Blue Devils’ win, yet another step in their charge to national title number four. That was “the most important” game he played in, he said Wednesday.

“We went through three-and-a-half really tough, successful years and it comes down to a moment, and either we’re going to the Final Four and put us in a position to win a national championship or we’re not,” Scheyer said. “That was really the moment for me and my teammates, and I felt it was the same thing for our team tonight.”

Scheyer pointed out that Duke scored 78 points against the Bears then, too.

New York is a special place, especially around the holidays (McCain said he was going to see the tree at Rockefeller Center the day after the game), but it seems to hold a particularly strong affinity for Duke basketball. The Blue Devils appear to hold just as strong an affinity the other way, saving breakout performances and program-changing wins for the spectacle an MSG showpiece inherently brings with it. That’s probably why both parties agree to meet up for what has become an almost annual tradition.

To its credit, Baylor put together a serious fight Wednesday, and for extended stretches of the second half seemed better poised to emerge victorious. But the Blue Devils’ New York magic, buoyed by a vibrant and abundant crowd punctuated by a band full of Duke alumni accompanying each ear-shattering cheer, found a way through.

“There’s really no words to describe it,” McCain beamed. “This is just a surreal moment. I visualize a lot of stuff, and I visualized coming into the locker room celebrating. And it happened.”

Just as it did for Blue Devils of yore.


Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Recruitment/Social Chair

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and recruitment/social chair of The Chronicle's 120th volume. He was previously sports editor for Volume 119.

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