The lights were bright here inside the Dome, and college basketball was watching to see how Syracuse would respond after an emotional week. A nationally televised audience also tuned into see how top-ranked Duke would react without Zion Williamson. In the end, the Blue Devils reacted better – mostly from an enormous night from lottery pick RJ Barrett, and an inconsistent offensive game for the Orange. Duke walked out of a hostile Carrier Dome with the season split 75-65 behind 30 points on 14-20 shooting by Barrett.
There’s only so many fans the Carrier Dome can squeeze into seats with reasonable sight lines. But this was not a reasonable game, so a campus-record 35,642 shoved into the CNY bubble. The oceans of Orange were a sight to behold, and thanks to the brave sherpas that scaled Mount Otto like it was a Himalaya, there were fans in the far corners of the Dome. It looked like they were sitting on Tipp Hill. Whatever they paid for the ticket, it was worth it… for the first 30 minutes. The noise here was deafening at times, especially as SU controlled the game in the first half. The crowd was in its seats early, ready to go at opening tip, all the Labatt Blue’s and Dome Dogs scarfed down.
The scene was an uncomfortable and unexpected one coming into the day. The tragic events of the week led to an atmosphere that was both celebratory and somber. The first evidence though, that this would be more positive than negative was the opening ovation for Jim Boeheim. The big screen showed a montage of The Per’fesser throughout the years and the applause was loud and unmistakably supportive. It was as though the crowd was patting their head coach on the back, like an old friend after a devastating life event. At player introductions the crowd was enormous, raucous, and gave the coach another huge roar before tip.
It was clear Syracuse was up to the challenge early. At times this team has looked disorganized (FSU), apathetic (Old Dominion) or asleep (Oregon). But tonight, the Orange took the fight to the Dookies from opening tip. Maybe it was confidence from the win at Cameron Indoor, maybe from the loss of Zion. Perhaps the noise of 35,600 elevated SU. It felt like a prize fighter that knows he matches up well against a certain foe, and tap dances into the ring with confidence. Unfortunately, that fuel ran out down the stretch.
The game began with desperation. The scoreboard went on the fritz at 17:14 left and SU holding a 3-2 lead. As action unfolded up and down the court, the crowd pleaded for information. Finally at the under 16:00 timeout, the clock reset and got us up to speed. Ninety seconds of action had passed, and it was a 5-4 Syracuse lead with 15:40 to play. Besides the angst for the crowd to get a proper score, big man Pascal Chukwu created plenty of desperate pleas himself. Every time he touched the ball the Dome faithful implored him to do something, anything, with it. The first five minutes felt like a final five minutes.
Frank Howard’s offense early was a huge reason SU was able to keep the lead for the first 10 minutes. The buckets fell, including a beautiful jumper with just at 10:50 to play that made it 12-9. Howard’s offense has been a canary in a coal mine for SU. When he’s given the Orange points, wins almost always follow. But by the end of the night Howard’s early offense was just a tease. He finished by shooting just 3-12 for 10 points.
One of the best parts of the night was the reception a crew of living legends received. Lawrence Moten, Etan Thomas, John Wallace, Todd Burgan, among others were introduced during a timeout in the first half. The prideful bond the program has developed among its very best players is extraordinary, and might be Boeheim’s greatest legacy, beyond the National Championship and Final Fours.
The pace at times in the first half was frenetic, plenty of break outs and leak outs. Transition defense was in demand, as both teams tried to connect on easy baskets down the floor. SU was more productive as the Duke offense lacked any polish in finishing, and often put up scattershot attempts destined for a rebound.
The difference over time however, was Duke’s inherent ability to answer every challenge. Whenever the Orange had a momentum grabbing play (a Buddy Boeheim reverse layup, a Chukwu monster slam) the Blue Devils scored on the other end. Had SU been able to go on a few runs, the Dome roof would’ve blown clear off and onto South Salina Street. Had Rob Gronkowski, who was in attendance, spiked the ball directly onto Coach K’s head at any of those interchanges the Dome would’ve disintegrated into 44 million pieces, a pile of gray ash settled next to SUNY ESF.
But Duke knew when to turn it on and stop that momentum in its tracks. A 7-0 run to begin the second half erased a 35-29 advantage within 2 1/2 minutes. The crowd seemed disoriented, having gotten used to cheering Orange buckets and a lead, but quickly realizing Duke had suddenly seized the upper hand. Sloppy play on the boards, along with Duke winning the majority of 50/50 balls gave the Blue Devils multiple chances to capitalize. With 5:00 gone by in the second half, the Orange trailed 44-43.
The Blue Devils threatened to run away with the game, but SU kept fighting. At 48-44 tenacious SU play on the boards created baskets on the offensive end. At 50-48, a loose ball out of bounds on the Blue Devils caused a roar from the crowd, and the Dome was back to rocking. Followed by a reverse layup by Tyus Battle, a 50-50 score once again pushed the decibels to the brink.
But as Duke did all night, a huge shot silenced the crowd at the perfect moment. A trey gave the Blue Devils a 53-50 lead. Syracuse’s shooting felt like an old car that simply wouldn’t start up on a cold morning. In the second half, too many times the Orange could’ve taken the lead or cut it to a one possession game and just couldn’t find the basket. With 9 minutes to play, the Blue Devils had opened a 58-52 advantage and the night was sliding away from SU.
Barrett’s massive game was the difference, and his three-pointer at the 6:00 mark was a defining moment. The Orange had closed it to a two-point deficit, but with the shot clock running down the future lottery pick drilled a three, then put his finger to his mouth, as though to silence the crowd. He followed that up with finishing an alley-oop, and the Devils had a 9-point lead with under five to play. Even without Zion the Blue Devils sport more high-end NBA talent than anyone in the country.
The threes were unkind for the Orange, as SU went only 5-22 from beyond the arc. Barrett’s incredible night lifted the Blue Devils, and without an offensive answer for so many of his momentum-shifting buckets the Orange played catch up the entire second half. It was a valiant effort for two-thirds of the game, but SU’s awful night from beyond the arc undermined the effort.
What Syracuse showed was that it still has the ability to play with the best in college basketball. Duke will win plenty in March, and it would be a shocker not to see them in the Twin Cities for the Final Four. But SU’s potential will only be realized if it’s focus is as solid as it was to start tonight, and the shots fall along with it.