Tough conversations and a lineup reshuffle. How Duke found its fight again without Zion Williamson

Duke’s RJ Barrett on an ‘amazing’ win at Syracuse

Duke freshman star RJ Barrett discusses Duke's 75-65 win at Syracuse on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019 at the Carrier Dome. The Blue Devils won despite not having fellow freshman star Zion Williamson, who is out with a knee injury.
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Duke freshman star RJ Barrett discusses Duke's 75-65 win at Syracuse on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019 at the Carrier Dome. The Blue Devils won despite not having fellow freshman star Zion Williamson, who is out with a knee injury.

The situation appeared prime for Syracuse to accomplish what no ACC team has done in 10 years.

Already owning a win over Duke this season, the Orange welcomed a damaged and diminished Blue Devils team to the sold-out Carrier Dome on Saturday looking for a season sweep.

The last ACC team to pull off two regular-season wins over Duke was North Carolina during its 2009 NCAA championship season.

Despite playing without injured freshman star Zion Williamson, after hours of hard conversations after losing 88-72 to the Tar Heels on Wednesday night and a lineup reshuffle, the No. 1 Blue Devils found a fighting spirit they’ve possessed all season and pulled off a 75-65 win over the Orange.

To accomplish that, the Blue Devils went through what coach Mike Krzyzewski called “one of the toughest 24 hours he’s had at Duke” on Thursday as they accepted they’d be without Williamson due to his knee injury in addition to the humbling defeat handed to them by their fierce rival at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“Thank goodness I have a great team around me – my support people,” Krzyzewski said. “I asked my team, ‘we just went through hell these last 24 hours’, and I could depend on everybody. We need to be that team, where you can depend on everybody, and they were. I

am really proud of my team.”

Thursday brought a series of meetings between coaches and players. Most were one-on-one involving Krzyzewski. Mixed in was a gathering with the three remaining healthy freshmen starters -- RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones -- and the head coach.

Veteran players, like Jack White and Marques Bolden, learned their playing time was in jeopardy.

Sophomore guard Alex O’Connell, who had played a total of 10 minutes in Duke’s three games prior to Williamson’s injury against UNC, learned he’d be in the starting lineup.

Duke sophomore guard stepped in for injured star Zion Williamson and scored 20 points in the Blue Devils' 75-65 win at Syracuse on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at the Carrier Dome.

Freshman guard Joey Baker, after matriculating to Duke a year earlier than scheduled and not playing in Duke’s first 26 games while on a redshirt path, learned he’d suddenly be part of Duke’s rotation as Krzyzewski desperately sought to add missing perimeter shooting.

That’s a lot of change, a range of emotions for a team seeking to achieve college basketball’s highest accomplishments, to process.

“We had to come up here and battle the team that beat us at home,” Duke co-captain and junior forward Javin DeLaurier said. “I had to make sure everyone was focused on that.”

Krzyzewski mentioned after the UNC loss his displeasure that the Tar Heels seemed to secure every loose ball available during the game. The Blue Devils had taken pride, and reached the top of the national rankings this season, by being the hardest working team on the court during their games.

In a big moment against UNC, they didn’t deliver.

Part of those tough 24 hours on Thursday Krzyzewski referred to was making sure that didn’t happen again while dealing with Williamson’s loss from the lineup.

“Getting over the psychological stuff that happened to our team,” Krzyzewski said. “We were knocked back. I met with almost every one of my guys individually. The three freshmen,

together and just asking them ‘how did they feel’ and ‘how do they feel now’ and while trying to handle whatever else was happening.”

DeLaurier and O’Connell moved into the starting lineup at Syracuse. White, a co-captain along with DeLaurier mired in a shooting slump that’s reached 25 consecutive missed 3-pointers, never played against the Orange.

Bolden, a starter in the previous 10 games, played two minutes in the first half. Baker saw the first five minutes of his playing career, meaning he now has three years of eligibility remaining at Duke after this season.

Despite all that, Duke trailed 34-29 at halftime to Syracuse.

The hustle and fight that Krzyzewski wanted paid off in the second half, though.

Duke scored on its first four possessions, with O’Connell giving the Blue Devils their first second-half lead by nailing a 3-pointer with 17:47 to play.

The Orange pushed back in front 43-41 when the game’s signature sequence unfolded.

With 15:25 to play, DeLaurier missed a contested layup inside. He secured the offensive rebound but missed another short shot. Undeterred, the scrambled for the loose ball, tapping it out to O’Connell at the 3-point line in the corner.

The sophomore tossed in a 3-pointer while Syracuse’s Frank Howard fouled him. O’Connell added the free throw for the four-point play that put Duke up 45-43 with 15:14 to play.

The Blue Devils never trailed again.

“We knew we had to play hard and fight together to win tonight,” O’Connell said. “We did that. It feels good to get this one.”

O’Connell scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half. He made five of eight 3-pointers in the game.

Duke was 3 of 15 from 3-point in the first half. With O’Connell sinking four 3-pointers in the second half, the Blue Devils made six of 14 over the final 20 minutes.

“We did a couple changes and started jabbing and how we attacked the zone with Alex” Krzyzewski said. “All those things are neat on paper, but Alex made it happen and his teammates had confidence in him.”

Still, Duke needed another big play to hold off the Orange.

While Syracuse went three seconds shy of five minutes without scoring, Duke built a modest 58-52 lead. The Orange cut it to 58-56 with 6:42 left and the crowd of 35,642 -- the largest to watch an NCAA basketball game in an on-campus arena -- grew loud once again.

With 6:14 left, Barrett calmly drilled a 3-pointer to hush the Syracuse fans. It ignited a 7-0 Duke run that pushed its lead to 65-56 and set the Blue Devils on a course to the win.

“RJ was spectacular,” Krzyzewski said after the ACC’s leading scorer pumped in 30 points with seven assists.

“It was great,” Barrett said. “You got into somebody else’s home. They want you to lose. Just to come in here and get a road win is amazing.”

Bolden even redeemed himself down the stretch, finishing with eight rebounds in only 10 minutes of play in the game. He grabbed seven rebounds in the game’s final 6:43, four on the offensive end.

Syracuse once held a 32-24 rebounding edge. Duke finished winning that battle 44-40.

The fight and tenacity so present in Duke’s earlier big wins this season -- over Kentucky, at Florida State and twice against Virginia -- returned after a one-game absence against UNC.

No matter when Williamson returns -- and it’s a question of when, not if -- the Blue Devils became a better team by experiencing life without him over the three days following the UNC loss.

That should make Duke (24-3, 12-2 ACC) an even tougher team come NCAA tournament time when it plays to obtain the only goal that really matters.

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.