“We’ve had a lot of games in here that have been great, but there’s never been a game as good as this one.”
That’s what Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim told Shannon Spake after the No. 2 Orange knocked off No. 17 Duke, which is a strong statement but one that Boeheim could very well be correct about. The hype entering this game was out of control — the two winningest college basketball coaches of all time, two storied programs playing their first game as ACC rivals, 35,446 fans in the Dome, I could go on and on and on — but this was one of the rare occasions where the game was as good as the pregame show.
C.J. Fair led the way for the Orange, finishing with 28 points, while Jerami Grant added 24 points and 12 boards as Syracuse overwhelmed the smaller Blue Devils in the paint. But Duke countered, hitting 15 threes, pounding the offensive glass and putting five players in double figures.
And it played out to perfection.
The Orange would make a run pounding the ball into the paint. Duke would respond by hitting a couple of threes to get back into the game. Back and forth, over and over again, with the most notable stretch being the trio of second half three-pointers that Tyler Thornton hit on consecutive possessions to keep Duke within striking distance as Syracuse looked ready to pull away.
The crescendo came at the end of regulation, when Rasheed Sulaimon, who finished with 16 points and seven assists, went the length of the court to hit a three and force overtime:
The Orange would go on to win in overtime, the beneficiary of a somewhat friendly whistle down the stretch that allowed them to remain undefeated, but someone had to end up losing this game.
Focusing strictly on who ended up winning this game would belie a bigger point: what we saw at the Carrier Dome on Saturday was two teams capable of making the Final Four in Arlington playing about as well as they can play.
For the Orange, that meant feasting on the mismatches that get created when Fair and Grant are on the court together. Fair inparticular. He is the prototype combo-forward at the college basketball level. He’s a face-up scorer that’s big enough to score in the post, athletic enough to get his shot off against anyone and comfortable enough on the perimeter to cross a defender over and hit a pull-up jumper in his face. We saw his full arsenal on Saturday, and it was nothing short of impressive. The same can be said for Tyler Ennis, whose 14 points and nine assists were as unnoticeably sensational as always.
On the other side of the ball, the undersized Blue Devils scrapped for everything inch they could get. Whether it was the 14 points, seven boards (six offensive) and five assists from Amile Jefferson or the relentless of Jabari Parker attacking the rim despite getting swatted five or six times, the Blue Devils weren’t intimidated by the longer wingspans and bigger verticals of the Orange. At the end of the day, they fought hard enough that their 15 threes buoyed them, which is more or less what the goal for this Duke team has been all season long.
In the end, it all came down to one play: Rodney Hood driving the lane, down one with 15 seconds left, going up to try to dunk over Rakeem Christmas. Did he get fouled? Was it a clean block? We can debate it all day long, but the refs didn’t blow their whistle and the Orange escaped.
They head into the season’s stretch run without a blemish on their record. Duke sits three games back in the ACC standings but ahead of where they were at the start of the day — miles ahead of where they were at the start of the week — in the eyes of anyone with a semblance of basketball intellect.
The best news of all?
We get to do it all over again in three weeks, this time at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Good luck trying to get a ticket to that game.