SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As debuts go, this is like playing your first round of golf at Augusta, drinking your first beer at Oktoberfest or planting your first kiss on Kate Upton.
Syracuse and Duke faced off for the first time as ACC opponents on Saturday night, and the only proper reaction from the adrenaline-fueled overtime thriller would be to beg for more.
After No. 2 Syracuse outslugged and outlasted No. 17 Duke, 91-89, in overtime, the teams delivered a virtuoso performance that the NFL will be hard-pressed to surpass on Super Bowl Sunday.
The game featured two Hall of Fame coaches, two dueling All-Americans and one triple order of onions buzzer beater, all amid a world-class environment. By Sunday morning, Syracuse will be No. 1 in the country after Arizona lost to Cal on Saturday night.
“If you paid $3,400 on the market for a courtside seat, it was money well spent,” advised Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. “You should be happy that you did. If you sold your tickets for this game, you should be ashamed because you made some money and missed an epic.”
It was a game that felt more like an event, with all the hype, all the storylines and all the colliding mystique and tradition, played out in front of a record crowd of 35,446. Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney said players couldn’t hear each other on the court amid the din, and only at times was the referee’s whistle audible.
The game had everything — a phantom foul and a controversial no-call, 15 Duke three-pointers and a 28-point Picasso from Syracuse senior C.J. Fair. It had crescendos of deafening noise, piercing silence and enough drama that Feb. 22, when these teams meet in Durham, can’t come fast enough.
“This game will go down in the history books,” Fair said, slumped in a chair in front of his locker after the game. “It seems like this rivalry has been going on for 30 years, and it’s just the beginning. It shows you how promising the future is for both teams.”
Fair added: “I think this rivalry is going to surpass maybe us and Georgetown.”
Those are bold words, but hyperbole lingered in the Carrier Dome like the slate February sky. Boeheim didn’t hesitate to call it the best basketball game played under the Carrier Dome bubble, which first inflated for games in 1980.
“I don’t think I’ve been involved in a better game in here that I can remember, where both teams played at such a high level,” Boeheim said. He added: “Both teams just went after it. I can’t say enough about the quality of this game. It was the highest quality possible.”
In the last generation, with the rise of the Big East, the growth of ESPN and the modernization of college basketball, Syracuse and Georgetown became this region’s top rivalry. And while one game doesn’t discard decades of history, it certainly portends a fun few decades for these teams playing each other in the ACC.
“Great rivalries don’t have to be built on hatred,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’re built on respect, on a respect for excellence.”
The defining shot of the game came at the end of regulation, when Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon darted down the left side of the floor and pulled up for the game-tying three pointer over Cooney as the clock expired. The sound of silence filled the 35,446 orange-clad denizens, a night of punching and counter punching headed to the place it seemed destined for — overtime. Sulaimon’s heave capped a monster effort just to get there, which included a game-tying three-pointer with 48 seconds left in regulation. Duke also overcame foul trouble, a distinct size disadvantage and 15 fewer free throw attempts.
“Our kids scrambled well,” Krzyzewski said. “We scrambled well enough to put us in position to win.”
Unfortunately, the biggest play in overtime will be shrouded in controversy. Trailing 88-87, Duke’s Rodney Hood rose toward the basket with 13 seconds remaining. He’d slipped away for what appeared to be a dunk until Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas rotated over and collided with him in midair. The play went down in the books as Christmas’ sixth block of the night, a bang-bang play that could have been called either way.
“This game is too good to talk about one play,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not going there at all. You’re going there.”
In the end, it was almost miraculous that Duke hung with Syracuse (21-0, 8-0) for so long. Syracuse launched out to its best start in school history and pulled away from Duke in the ACC race, as the Blue Devils (17-5, 6-3) will have to scramble the rest of the season to secure a spot to start its NCAA Tournament run in Raleigh.
Tyler Thornton kept Duke in the game in the second half by hitting 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to keep Duke in the game. And in overtime, Duke tried to trade three-pointers for two-pointers and nearly pulled it off.
With Parker and Amile Jefferson fouled out in the final two minutes of regulation, Syracuse exploited a massive mismatch inside in overtime. The 6-foot-8 Jerami Grant posted up and posterized the 6-foot-5 Andre Dawkins with three dunks in the first four overtime possessions.
“It was difficult,” Thornton said. “We were undersized at every position. We still had a chance to win it at the end. We just couldn’t match their size.”
Grant finished with a career-high 24 points, including two free throws with 39 seconds left to give him eight overtime points.
But it was Fair who shined brightest, reminding everyone that a savvy senior can outclass anyone, no matter their draft projections.
Fair scored 16 points in the second half, including a flurry of jumpers, layups and a crushing dunk that appeared to put Syracuse in control of the game.
On a floor with four players projected higher than him in the NBA Draft — Duke’s Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood and teammates Tyler Ennis and Grant — Fair was the best player. Thankfully, Chad Ford and NBA General Managers aren’t consulted when choosing ACC Player of the Year, as this game catapults Fair to the forefront of that race. He finished 12-for-20 shooting in 45 minutes, outshining Parker who went 6-for-16 and watched overtime on the bench after fouling out.
“C.J. Fair was phenomenal tonight,” Boeheim said. “He broke out of that good, solid player into a great player. He was a great player tonight.”
In a match-up of Hall of Fame coaches, there was plenty to second guess. Syracuse failed to foul at the end of regulation up three, something Boeheim said he wanted his team to do. Parker wondered why he didn’t get more touches at the free-throw line against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, as two of his limited touches there ended in two of Duke’s most dynamic baskets of the night.
“I think so,” Parker said when asked if he should have got more high-post touches. “Just to see how the game was going. I was just able to go in the middle and make plays. I think next time we play them I’ll flash a little bit more.”
And when he does, everyone will be watching. Until then, we request ESPN to change its February 22 GameDay from Arizona-Colorado to Cameron Indoor, and we’ll petition John Swofford to assure us that Syracuse and Duke can play every year.
“I think it’s really going to be a ridiculous game,” Ennis said.
The standard for this new ACC rivalry has been set. February 22 can’t come soon enough.