Syracuse beats Duke in instant classic

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Updated: February 4, 2014

If last night’s Super Bowl proved anything, it demonstrated that it’s never a certainty that the hype and expectations surrounding a given sporting event are going to jive with the actual results.  Weeks of buildup and suspense can easily go by the wayside by something as innocent as a wayward snap that sets off a one-sided onslaught, leaving the other side struggling to pick up the pieces.

Saturday night provided the sports world with the opposite end of the spectrum.  It was a special night in Syracuse, New York, a night where an ACC basketball game more than lived up to its billing.  A back and forth contest between two of the historic programs in the country ensued with the Syracuse Orange ultimately prevailing in overtime by a score of 91-89 over the Duke Blue Devils. 

Syracuse and Duke played before a Carrier Dome record crowd of 35,446, and even before the tip it was clear that this was no ordinary contest.  In fact, by the time Jimmy B and Coach K met at midcourt, the place was in an absolute frenzy. 

Though I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended twenty or so games at the Dome in my lifetime, the electric atmosphere permeating the crowd throughout this one was unreal.  I have been present for some loud crowds over the years, but this had an entirely different feel to it – from beginning to end the level of engagement and energy was palpable. 

Adding to the environment was the high level of basketball that was being played between the two teams.  Going in, I assumed Syracuse’s length combined with Duke’s inability to protect the basket would eventually slant the scales in Jimmy’s favor and vault the Orange to the win.  True to form though, the Blue Devils were well prepared for Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone and executed their sets to perfection.

Duke kept the ball moving around the perimeter and then inside and out at a rapid pace, more often than not getting clean looks in the process.  It was maddening to watch as it appeared they running the same screening action repeatedly, but to their credit they were getting the shots they wanted and knocked down a majority of them.  Syracuse looked as though they were going to put some distance between the teams in the second half; but then, in a memorable stretch, Duke started trading threes for two’s with them on seemingly each possession until the deficit was negligible.        

The need for Duke to hit a large portion of its three point attempts (they finished the game going 15 for 36) was paramount because of the high efficiency Syracuse was displaying on the offensive end of the floor.  The Orange scored a season-high 1.34 points per possession (91 points in 68 possessions), decisively outscoring Duke in the paint and at the free throw line.  The Blue Devils are undersized team outside of Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson, and after those two fouled out it was like Christmas came early for Jerami Grant.  In the extra session he played like a skinnier version of mid-90’s Shaq, getting the ball inside and dunking on three consecutive plays.  

The fact that this game even went into OT was something to behold and will only add to the legend, with Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon beating the buzzer to end regulation with a difficult off-balance 3-pointer.  For the good of mankind Syracuse rallied back from an 87-84 deficit with 80 seconds left to win, as I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Sulamion’s shot and Dickie V’s reaction became part of some improbable Duke comeback win that would predictably be pumped down our throats on every stock ESPN highlight reel for years to come. 

Though in the end only the ‘Cuse will get the W on its ledger, it must be said that both teams, the audience watching at home, and college basketball as a whole were all winners on this particular night.  As Boeheim saluted a still raucous crowd when it ended, everyone involved was aware that they had just witnessed something special.  What a game, what a night. 

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