Feb 14, 2015 10:25 PM
Okafor leads No. 4 Duke past Syracuse 80-72
The Associated Press
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) On the biggest of stages, Jahlil Okafor stood very tall.
Duke's stellar freshman big man had 23 points and 13 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season, outplaying Rakeem Christmas as the fourth-ranked Blue Devils beat Syracuse 80-72 on Saturday night before a raucous sellout crowd in the Carrier Dome.
After struggling through a 3-for-8 shooting performance in the opening half, Okafor hit all seven shots he attempted in the second to help Duke (22-3, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) to its fifth straight win.
"I didn't want to make it an individual matchup. All of my teammates knew that going into the game," Okafor said. "I knew he was their best player and I would have my hands full."
Duke had to withstand a standout performance from ex-Blue Devil Michael Gbinije, who scored a career-high 27 points for Syracuse (16-9, 7-5). Gbinije hit five 3-pointers in the first half as the Orange took a three-point lead into the locker room.
But the game already had begun to turn.
After Gbinije hit his fifth 3 to give Syracuse an 11-point lead with 3:28 left in the opening half, eliciting a deafening roar from the crowd of 35,446, the Blue Devils rallied. They closed the half with a 13-5 spurt, keyed by 3-pointers from Quinn Cook and Matt Jones, switched defenses in the locker room and began the second half with a 13-2 surge.
"Syracuse came out and played an unbelievable first half and basically could have knocked us off," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Our guys kicked it in and started pushing the ball up the court. We got some transition baskets and then we hit some 3s."
And Okafor began to exert himself inside Syracuse's 2-3 zone while holding his own defensively against Christmas, who finished 5 of 17 for 11 points.
"He's a tremendous player," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said about Okafor. "He's got the best footwork of any big man I've seen. They did a great job of finding him in the zone down there, and he's a great finisher around the basket."
Christmas, 1 of 7 in the first half, continued to struggle in the second, missing twice from in close with Okafor leaning on him. On the other end, Okafor scored eight points in the first 5 minutes.
Cook's second 3-pointer of the game gave Duke a 43-39 edge with 17:42 left, and Okafor hit twice around a runner by Tyus Jones to give the Blue Devils a 49-41 lead.
Unable to close the gap for nearly eight minutes, Syracuse finally narrowed it to 66-62 with 3:51 left on a mid-range jumper by Christmas and two free throws by Tyler Roberson.
Okafor's slam and two free throws by Tyus Jones helped keep the Orange at bay.
"It was just talking, fighting, paying attention to ball screens, everybody being in it," said Cook, who swished six straight free throws in the final 30 seconds. "(Okafor) and Christmas were fighting. A lot of things were loose. We got into transition and that's what kind of got us going."
Cook scored 17 points, Tyus Jones had 11 points and six assists, and Justise Winslow added 12 points before fouling out for Duke. Okafor finished 10 of 15 from the floor.
Roberson had a career-high 19 points and Trevor Cooney added 11 on 4-for-14 shooting for the Orange.
Syracuse had exhibited plenty of grit in the two games since a postseason ban was announced as the school awaits the results of an NCAA investigation into the athletic department. The Orange had lost at Pittsburgh and won at Boston College.
Despite the impending ban, the game attracted a crowd that matched the Carrier Dome record set last year when these teams, guided by the winningest coaches in the history of Division I basketball, met for the first time as members of the ACC.
This game featured two of the most accomplished big men in the country in Syracuse senior Christmas and Duke freshman Okafor. They both entered averaging 18 points per game, and Okafor leads the ACC in shooting (66.5 percent).
Duke went hard at Christmas early on, and despite falling behind 18-12, the strategy worked. Christmas picked up his second foul midway through the first half.
Unfazed, Gbinije, who played one nondescript year at Duke before transferring, took charge for Syracuse, hitting three 3-pointers in a span of less than two minutes to break a tie and give the Orange a 27-18 lead with 6:18 left in the opening half.
Okafor stopped the Orange rush with a shot off the glass, and Winslow followed with a three-point play to get the Blue Devils going.
Syracuse instituted its self-imposed postseason ban 10 days ago for the men's basketball team as part of its case pending before the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The ban includes the ACC tournament, which means the Orange have only six games left this season.
Syracuse: The Orange have clinched their 44th straight winning season, the top streak in Division I. ... Boeheim has an NCAA-record 36 seasons of 20 or more wins.
Duke: Cook has made at least one 3-pointer in an ACC-leading 35 straight games. ... Okafor is the first player in Duke history to shoot 75 percent or better in 10 games in a single season.
Syracuse shot 15 of 31 (48.4 percent) and held Duke to 14 of 36 (38 percent) in the first half. The Blue Devils turned the tables in the second, going 13 of 21 (61.9 percent) and holding the Orange to 14 of 36. ... Gbinije was 7 of 9 in the first half for 19 points and 3 of 5 in the second, missing twice from long range with Cook often in his face.
Syracuse hosts Louisville on Wednesday night.
Duke hosts North Carolina on Wednesday night.
Follow Kekis on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/Greek1947