Playing in its first full game without National Player of the Year frontrunner Zion Williamson, Duke avenged its home loss to Syracuse in January with a 75-65 win over the Orange in the Carrier Dome.
Similarly to Saturday’s game, the Blue Devils weren’t at full strength for their first meeting with the Orange as forward Cam Reddish didn’t play at all and point guard Tre Jones left early in the first half with a shoulder injury.
But unlike that January 14th matchup, Duke was able to rally the troops Saturday for a win over Syracuse.
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Freshman RJ Barrett scored a game-high 30 points on 14-of-20 shooting – his sixth game this season in which he scored at least 30 points. It was a drastic difference in performance compared to his first time playing against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, when he took a season-high 30 shots, including 17 threes, and scored just 23 points in the Orange’s 95-91 win in overtime.
Barrett was much more judicious with his three-point attempts Saturday, when he attempted just five threes and made two. His second made three was a crucial one as Syracuse had cut Duke’s lead to 58-56 after Javin DeLaurier knocked over Elijah Hughes underneath Syracuse’s basket after Hughes grabbed a defensive rebound. Hughes went to the free throw line and sank both ends of a 1-and-1.
On Duke’s next possession, Barrett brilliantly sold a ball fake that caused Syracuse forward Oshae Brissett try to jump a passing lane to the left corner, where Duke guard Alex O’Connell was positioned. Without moving, Barrett had created enough space for a wide-open three from the left wing, which he sank.
It gave Duke a 61-56 lead and sparked a 7-0 run that forced Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim to call a timeout as his team’s deficit grew to nine. The Orange never climbed closer than five points of the Blue Devils in the final five minutes.
Remarkably the second-leading scorer in the game wasn’t Reddish or Jones, or Syracuse’s Tyus Battle, Hughes or Brissett. It was O’Connell, the sophomore guard who exploded for a career-high 20 points after reaching double figures in just six times in the previous 61 games of his college career.
Duke entered the night with a 30.6 three-point percentage that ranked 327th nationally and O’Connell had the best three-point percentage among the Blue Devils’ rotation players with a 34.6 hit rate.
He started for just the second time in his career and he was 5-of-8 from behind the arc, exploiting Syracuse’s 2-3 zone from deep as a secondary option alongside Barrett. O’Connell’s breakout performance could be the most positive development from the game for Duke, if he’s able to expand his role on offense and replicate his three-point success in the weeks to come.
Outside of Barrett and O’Connell, Duke had little (and inefficient) production from the rest of its roster as Jones scored 12 points on 2-of-12 shooting, while Reddish added five points on 2-of-11 from the field. The Blue Devils’ bench scored just four points, all of which were scored by junior center Marques Bolden, who provided valuable minutes in the second half and finished with eight rebounds.
The victory was a testament to the talent on Duke’s roster and the commitment of its players to their roles, even though the potential – if not likely – National Player of the Year was in street clothes on the team’s bench.
Now the question is when will Williamson return and will he look the same when he returns to the court.
Duke announced Saturday morning that Williamson’s injury status is day-to-day after suffering a Grade 1 right knee sprain. The Blue Devils’ next game is Tuesday at No. 20 Virginia Tech, then they’ll return home for a pair of games against Miami (FL) and Wake Forest, which kenpom.com projects Duke to win by at least 20 points in both.
Then on March 9 in Chapel Hill, Duke will try to repeat what it accomplished Saturday at Syracuse: going on the road against an ACC foe with the goal of avenging a previous home loss.