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Syracuse 91 Duke 89

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Tyler Ennis, driving here on Quinn Cook, was as good as advertised.
Tyler Ennis, driving here on Quinn Cook, was as good as advertised.
Rich Barnes

Years from now, when fans, coaches and players look back on great games from the Krzyzewski era, there are certain ones which will stand out: UNLV, Kentucky, Butler, Purdue, UConn and Austin Rivers' win over UNC among them.

Even though it was a loss, this game will find its place among these.

Duke and Syracuse put on a show for the ages Saturday night with a back-and-forth battle which was only decided at the very end of overtime.

Despite significant foul trouble - Amile Jefferson, Jabari Parker and Andre Dawkins all fouled out while Rodney Hood finished with four - Duke found ways to battle back against the bigger Syracuse team. But let's back up for a minute.

In the first half, and for part of the second, the zone caused Duke a lot of grief. Parker tried to drive on it and found himself blocked on several occasions. The zone was highly effective until Duke started heating up from outside and late in the game, it was clear that while Duke couldn't stop Syracuse, Syracuse couldn't stop Duke either.

There were several points in this game when we thought Duke might buckle: when Jefferson fouled out, for one, when Parker left for another.

Duke seemed about to yield when Tyler Thornton went on a personal scoring binge, hitting three threes in a row to pull Duke back from the brink.

Duke was down 66-59 when Thornton pulled out the cape and started gunning.

In less than two minutes, he personally cut the lead to two, 70-68.

This is what we mean when we say that of all the guys who've been through Duke lately, he's the guy we wish could stay longer. How many times has he done this?

He personally turned the game against Maryland his freshman year. He basically won the Kansas game in Maui. He almost pulled off a similar feat here.

He's like the ultimate team player. We love Thornton, absolutely love what he does as a teammate. He's the best.

We have no idea what his future holds, but he has the makings of a fine coach.

But here's the twist: after Thornton hauled Duke back into the game, first Jefferson and then Parker fouled out. And frankly, it looked hopeless. Who hangs around against Syracuse with a skinny 6-8 wing at center and four guards?

But Duke did. Even as Tyler Ennis - who is every bit as good as his reputation - got the ball to his big guys for dunks, Duke scrapped and scraped and hung on.

And then at the end of regulation...where do you rank Rasheed Sulaimon's clutch shot?

It wasn't a prayer like Jeff Capel's shot against UNC or Sean Dockery's half-courter against Virginia Tech. It wasn't quite as dramatic as Christian Laettner's iconic shot against Kentucky.

But it might be better than Laettner's shot against UConn and pretty much matches Gene Banks' rainbow against UNC in 1980. It was every bit the shot that Austin Rivers hit against UNC, other than not being against UNC.

Which is to say it was one of the great shots in school history.

At the end, it was in one sense Duke's guards and outside shooting against Syracuse's Ennis and inside strength. But it was more than that, and this could be really problematic for Syracuse.

Duke had legs. Syracuse was just about gassed. Of the starters, CJ Fair went the distance, Jerami Grant and Ennis played 40,while Trevor Cooney played 38 and Rakeem Christmas played 34.

Syracuse brought Michael Gbinije off the bench for 12 minutes, Baye-Moussa Keita for 11 and Tyler Roberson for five. The Orange got four points and six boards from the bench - all of that was from Keita except for a bucket from Roberson, and a pretty bucket at that.

The late part of the season is a real grind, and Syracuse is playing with a very minimal bench at the moment.

Our policy here has always been to not criticize the officiating, unless it has a direct impact on the outcome of the game.

So we're not really concerned with the foul disparity (Syracuse shot 26-32 from the line, while Duke was 12-17), particularly when Duke could have won if the Devils hit just three more free throws.

The foul trouble for Parker and Jefferson will be instructive later. Consider it an investment.

So while we don't have a beef with the refs in general, we do think they made a mistake which changed the game. Gee, can you guess?

That's right sports fans, we're talking about the Hood dunk attempt, because while the hand is part of the ball, the forearm is not. Hood might have made that dunk, or the foul shots anyway, and if he had hit the foul shots, Duke would've been up one with :15 left.

Of course, Duke still had chances, but it's easier to win when you have the lead.

Despite the outcome, there's tremendous good from this game. Duke took another step forward, perhaps several.

Jefferson has proved himself to be a very good player indeed, and Sulaimon's confidence is bound to soar after hitting that clutch shot.

Duke faced a ton of adversity and still nearly snatched this game away from Syracuse.

Both teams looked like Final Four teams, but Duke's upside at this point is higher. If the Devils stay healthy, there's still tremendous room for growth, and look how much it's improved in the last three weeks or so.

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