Duke’s Alex O’Connell on his big performance at Syracuse
No. 1 Duke played without one of the nation’s top players but found a new standout who helped the Blue Devils avenge an earlier loss.
Sophomore Alex O’Connell scored 20 points in his first start of the season while RJ Barrett scored 30 points as the Blue Devils beat Syracuse 75-65 in ACC basketball Saturday night at the Carrier Dome.
The game was played before a crowd of 35,642, which established a new record for the largest attendance for an on-campus NCAA college basketball game.
The Blue Devils (24-3, 12-2 ACC) played their first game since star freshman Zion Williamson suffered a sprained right knee. The 6-7 all-American candidate was not in uniform for the first time this season.
Duke has played large parts of two games -- a 80-78 win at Florida State on Jan. 12 and Wednesday’s 88-72 loss to North Carolina -- without Williamson after he was injured during those games. But Saturday marked the first time they’d played an entire game without their national player of the year candidate.
Still Duke, which lost 95-91 in overtime to Syracuse back on Jan. 14 at Durham, found a way to win.
O’Connell played a big role, scoring 17 of his 20 points in the second half as Duke rallied from a five-point halftime deficit.
Syracuse (18-9, 9-5 ACC) struggled shooting down the stretch, making just three field goals over the game’s final 12 minutes. The Orange finished at 34 percent from the field.
Duke, after shooting just 40 percent and 3 of 15 on 3-pointers in the first half, shot 48 percent in the second half. The Blue Devils hit six 3-pointers in the second half, finishing at 44.1 percent for the game (9 of 29, 31 percent on 3-pointers).
After Syracuse led 34-29 the Blue Devils hit 7 of their first 11 shots after halftime, including three of four 3-pointers, to lead 50-46 with 13:49 to play.
O’Connell had a big play in that Duke push, grabbing a loose ball to sink a 3-pointer while being fouled. He added the free throw on play that gave Duke a lead and the Blue Devils never trailed again.
O’Connell’s 3-pointer from the corner with 10:29 to play gave Duke a 56-52 lead.
Duke’s lead grew to 58-52 when Barrett scored inside with 9:16 to play.
Syracuse went seven consecutive possessions without scoring, a drought of 4:57 without scoring a point.
But Duke scored only five points during that stretch.
A Marek Dolezaj basket and two Elijah Hughes free throws cut Duke’s lead to 58-56.
But Duke pulled away with its defense playing a big role.
Barrett’s 3-pointer started a 7-0 Duke run. O’Connell’s steal and slam dunk extended the lead. After a Tyus Battle miss, Barrett finished a fast break by taking a lob pass from Tre Jones for a slam dunk that put Duke up 65-56 with 4:44 to play.
Barrett scored 17 points over the game’s first 20 minutes to keep Duke close while their 3-pointers weren’t falling. But the Blue Devils got little production from anyone else as they shot 40 percent overall.
The first 20 minutes saw five lead changes and three ties. No team led by more than three points until six points in a row by Syracuse’s Dolezaj turned a 23-22 Duke lead into a 28-23 Orange advantage with 4:58 left until halftime.
Barrett scored Duke’s final six points of the half. But the Orange took their five-point lead to halftime.
Joey Baker, a 6-7 guard from Fayetteville, made a surprising debut for Duke thus eliminating the chance of him redshirting barring an injury.
Baker played five minutes in the first half while junior Jack White, who has missed 25 3-point attempts in a row, saw no action despite being healthy. Neither played in the second half.