It wasn’t smooth.
Through the game of Paschal Chukwu’s life, he heaved rebounds to the perimeter while falling out of bounds. He attempted a tip-in above the rim that got called back. In the final seconds of regulation, his seemingly clean defense on Zion Williamson nearly handed Duke a one-point win on free throws if the Blue Devils’ superstar converted on both.
Instead, the Syracuse Orange prevailed as the first-ever unranked opponent to defeat Duke on its home floor while the Blue Devils held No. 1 ranking. Chukwu, in his frustrating pace to many fans, lost control of loose balls early — including one that slid through his legs leading to a collision between Tre Jones and Frank Howard that knocked Jones out of the game. Chukwu then assumed full control, producing an assertive 10-point, 18-rebound, 3-block performance that Jim Boeheim called crucial to their victory.
No. 1 ranked Duke loses to unranked Syracuse 95-91 in OT.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2019
It is the first time that a top-ranked Duke team has lost at home to an unranked opponent. They were 90-0 entering tonight.
“When he plays like that,” he said. “We’re a different team.”
Two games before Chukwu’s monstrous performance, Boeheim gave no reason behind not playing his former starting center entirely in a win over Clemson. A reporter asked for an update on his DNP and Boeheim scoffed, “update?” Chukwu wasn’t hurt, he said, so it likely meant what Boeheim addressed after the Duke win, that “(he’s) really struggled all year.”
The real update came on Big Monday, when Boeheim saw something in Chukwu to play him heavily to the tune of 32 minutes, mostly in the second half and overtime.
Bourama Sidibe picked up three fouls during Syracuse’s Tyus Battle-led comeback from down 11-0. Marek Dolezaj ate all of an offensive foul from Williamson, like a train hitting a mammal crossing the tracks — or a truck as Elijah Hughes said. So chomping away at his gum, calm, cool and collected in front of the blue wave, Chukwu filled the interior and even blocked Williamson in the first half — the likely NBA Draft No. 1 pick.
“Whatever happens you just got to stay ready,” Chukwu said. “When your number gets called, go out there and play as hard as you can. That’s what I did. I didn’t start, you know whatever, but my number got called tonight.”
Boeheim linked Chukwu’s contributions with Howard’s. While not stripped of a starting job, his scoring average dipped from 14.6 points per game to 6.7 entering Monday’s game. Howard scored 0 points in the first half against the Blue Devils’ third-ranked KenPom defense until he finally got a three to go with 13:26 remaining in the second half.
Next set on offense, he looked for Chukwu on a lob in an indication of what came later.
The confusion, Boeheim’s yammering and the official review gave the broadcast team enough time to relive the coach’s famous tirade at Duke in 2014 (not to be confused with Buddy Boeheim’s three in 2018), and settled the game down after Duke shot ahead by eight on a 10-3 run. Howard then attacked Alex O’Connell head-on and hit a pair of jumpers inside the arc and a three in just over one minute.
It wasn’t the smoothest throw and it didn’t garner an assist, but Howard’s three came from Chukwu’s outlet pass as the two paired for an unlikely, overwhelming tandem.
“Shout out to our three back line guys,” Howard said. “Who fought all night down there. It was tight down there.”
Chukwu rebounded in traffic (three in roughly one minute), stuffed RJ Barrett and smoothly put back two offensive rebounds for four points with less than 5:11 remaining. He had missed two other put-backs minutes earlier, prompting Boeheim to suggest he learned something they’d been trying to teach him for years: put the ball right up on the offensive boards without dribbling.
Chukwu became what the tallest player in Syracuse’s history could be. His length on the interior, filled up so much space that even a physical specimen like Williamson — one Boeheim said he’s never seen before in four decades — couldn’t control the interior on every single play. Duke’s 9-for-43 three-point shooting night didn’t help either as ‘Cuse collapsed
As overtime winded down, Chukwu continued to avert full foul trouble and rose above the rim twice more. One time he went head over heels to the ground, earning to free throws as Jack White tipped him overboard. Like he did against Michigan State in his brightest moment prior, Chukwu flushed two free throws to pace the Orange ahead by five. They’d need it, Barrett’s ensuing three-pointer would have tied the game.
Then Howard placed a ball just right on the run, landing the true alley-oop Chukwu couldn’t finish earlier, and a win that few expected outside of 17-point underdogs. From rock bottom, SU pulled off the biggest win they could get on their schedule this season and Chukwu in many ways set the tone. Just as expected.