I had to take a few minutes to gather myself before I could write this recap, mostly because I lost feeling in my arms and legs for about the last ten minutes of regulation and overtime. So let’s back up for a second and reset.
We all know the background. #16/17 Duke brought its 17-4 record into the Carrier Dome for a showdown with the undefeated (21-0) and #2 ranked Syracuse Orange in front of an on-campus record 35,446 basketball fans. Real basketball fans.
The game was tight throughout. The largest lead was 7, by SU with 6:37 left in the second half. There were 11 ties and 8 lead changes. I had three heart attacks. Dogs and cats were living together. It was mass hysteria.
In the end, the Orange were able to exploit Duke’s foul trouble (25 team fouls, 3 disqualifications) and hit some timely free throws to secure the 91-89 victory. With recent wins over Pittsburgh and now Duke, SU is firmly in the conference lead with the season’s stretch run coming up, including a Big Monday showdown with Notre Dame looming on, um, Monday.
Here’s my report card from Saturday night’s game:
Head of the Class
C.J. Fair: Is it too early to give Fair the ACC Player of the Year Award? He had arguably the best game of his life in the biggest game of the season. How about a career-high 28 points, on 12-20 shooting? How about adding 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in the full 45 minutes? How about putting his team on his back and going on a personal 6-0 run with about 9 minutes left, when his teammates needed their leader to step up?
After the game, Fair was asked about his performance. “It’s big,” he said, talking about his career night. “Coming into this game, we knew it was going to be one of the biggest in history. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
No less of an authority than both of the game’s Hall of Fame coaches were effusive in their praise of Fair. “CJ Fair was phenomenal tonight,” said Jim Boeheim in his postgame news conference. “He broke out from a good, solid player to a great player.”
Mike Krzyzewski was equally impressed by both Fair and his frontcourt mate. “Fair and Grant were sensational,” the Duke coach said after the game. “Not good - sensational. Fair is a top pro pick. Grant is a pro too.” High praise coming from the coach of the U.S. National Team.
Grant agreed, adding “He’s just amazing. For him to come out and play the way he did… he was a superstar tonight.”
Jerami Grant: It is only because of Fair’s nuclear output that Grant gets bumped to the second spot. But there’s no shame in that. Jerami also poured in a career high with 24 points, and did it by shooting a white hot 10-10 from the free throw line and 7-10 from the field. He also pitched in a game-high 12 rebounds, and had a highlight reel block (which was called a jump ball, but whatever) that reminded me instantly of something Hakim Warrick would have done in his prime.
Grant was particularly effect late in the game and in overtime, when Duke forward Jabari Parker and center Amile Jefferson fouled out and found themselves on the bench. The Blue Devils were forced to go small, and Grant was the beneficiary of some serious mismatches.
“You just gotta post up,” said Grant about his end of game aggressiveness. I think I had (6’5” guard Andre) Dawkins on me, and I had to (take advantage). When you see a 2-man checking a 4, you have to post up.”
He did, and his ability to exploit the mismatch may have won SU the game.
SU Fans: 35,446. Think about that for a second. SU leads the nation in average attendance, and unless a plague wipes out half of Central New York I think the title is pretty much sewn up. There were a few football games that didn’t draw that many fans this year. Not only was the Dome packed, but it was loud. Chainsaw loud. Can’t hear the whistle loud. Ear-ringing loud – for the entire 45 minutes.
Take a bow, SU fans. You did your part.
Stay After School
Listen, I could nitpick and mention that SU gave up 18 offensive rebounds, or 15 three-pointers (41.7%), or didn’t take a foul on Rasheed Sulaimon instead of letting him get off that three at the end of regulation. But a win is a win, right? Boeheim said it himself on his radio show Thursday night: “There are no bad wins.” So let’s just chalk this up to two great teams playing a great game, and leave it at that.
Final Grade: A++++++
(You know the scene in "A Christmas Story" when Ralphie is daydreaming that his teacher give him a good grade on his theme, and she wrote "A++++++" all around the classroom? Kind of like that.)
SU’s win set a program record of 21 straight to start a season, and broke the 2-2 all-time tie between the two schools. The Orange play at Duke on February 22nd.
Tyler Ennis was 8-8 from the free throw line on his way to 14 points in 40 minutes. He also had 9 assists and 2 measly turnovers. TWO! He’s a freshman, playing in the most pressure-packed game of his life! Jabari Parker may be the eventual top draft pick, and Joel Embiid may have the most pro potential, and Andrew Wiggins may be the best athlete, but would any of you take any of them over Iceman Ennis right now? Hell to the no.
Rakeem Christmas: I said before the game that I thought Rak could be a key to SU’s success. I thought if he could hit the glass and protect the paint, he would free up his teammates to puch out on the perimeter and contest Duke’s shooters. Well, I was half right. He had 10 rebounds and SIX blocks in 34 minutes, and his ‘sell’ (ahem) of Parker’s elbow got Jabari out of the game. I don’t even care that he scored 7 points, but clearly SU needed every single one of them.
SU had 42 points in the paint, and was a mere 3-4 from three. Fair, Grant and Ennis routinely attacked the rim, and it paid off with 32 free throw attempts. The Orange made 26 of those, for a scorching 81.3% from the line. So not only was SU getting Duke in foul trouble, they were making the Devils pay for it.
C.J. Fair speaks to the media following the game Saturday night:
For a more detailed recap and commentary on the game and Jim Boeheim’s postgame news conference, visit my Twitter feed by clicking here.