Well, you definitely can’t say that Syracuse University didn’t give it everything on Valentine’s Day in the Carrier Dome. The Orange gave Duke University everything they had, but ultimately, the combination of missed free throws, missed bunnies, and a few questionable no-calls allowed the Blue Devils to hand Syracuse an 80-72 loss. Syracuse falls to 16-9, but honestly, as much of a heart breaker as this one was after the phenomenal way that the Orange started, all that performance will do is make the fans love this team even more.
With nearly 36,000 fans screaming inside the cozy confines of the Dome, the Orange came out about as hot as they could thanks to Michael Gbinije. It’s probably fair to say that Gbinije came into the game with a little something to prove against his former team, and he let Coach K and the Blue Devils know in a hurry that they might look back and regret letting him get away. Gbinije was at hot as could be to start the game, drilling four threes early to help Syracuse build an 11 point first half lead.
Gbinije has been on the verge of becoming a star for the last couple of weeks, but tonight he made it clear that he’s no longer just becoming a star – he is a star. Now, he still has some things to work on, particularly his free throw shooting (which is an area the entire team needs to work on after another dismal performance, this time hitting just 6-of-13 as a team), but it’s hard to argue against 27 points and a 5-of-8 performance from long distance. Gbinije was silent to open up the second half, but he got loud in a hurry, consistently slicing into the lane and finishing at the rim.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, despite career games from both him and Tyler Roberson, who played perhaps the best game of his Syracuse career. Roberson took it right to the Blue Devils, finishing with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but like the rest of the team, struggled at the free throw line (3-of-7). And Roberson, along with Rakeem Christmas, was guilty of leaving way too many points off the board with numerous missed bunnies. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many layups and short jumpers and baby hooks rim out the way they were for Syracuse’s post duo, but against a team as good as Duke, you simply cannot afford to miss shots that close to the bucket.
That’s maybe the most frustrating thing, too: Syracuse was getting the ball in good position to score basically at will, but they simply could not finish nearly as well as they needed to in order to pull off the upset over the No. 4-ranked team in the nation. It’s becoming a trend for this Syracuse team this year to play their hearts out, but just not have either enough in the tank, or enough talent to overcome their deficiencies. That continued tonight, as the Orange played nearly as well as they could but just weren’t quite up to the task of knocking off the Blue Devils.
Now, I’ve already talked about the poor free throw shooting, and the poor finishing around the rim. I have to mention the officiating, even though I hate ever blaming the refs. I don’t blame the refs for this game, either. Let’s just make that clear: the officiating was poor going both ways. The problem, though, is that some of the missed calls that went in Duke’s favor came at extremely inopportune times. For instance, with the Orange trying to claw back in and Trevor Cooney on a breakaway, he was wrapped up around the midsection by Tyus Jones – and no foul was called. The ball went the other way, and Kaleb Joseph was immediately whistled for a foul. That’s a heck of a turnaround.
But the worst non-call came at the 2:47 mark, when Christmas went up for a baby hook but was raked across the right arm by Jahlil Okafor. This non-call was especially disastrous for a number of reasons. The foul would have been the fifth on Okafor, first of all. The foul also would have sent Christmas to the free throw line with the Orange trailing 66-62 and a chance to cut it to a two point game. Instead, the foul went uncalled, and 20 seconds later Roberson was called for a foul, and Justise Winslow knocked down two free throws. That’s a four point swing, with Duke’s best player able to stay on the floor. That one non-call completely altered the final three minutes of the game.
But again, you can’t put the outcome on the referees. Syracuse had opportunities but couldn’t convert when it mattered most, and there were lapses on defense and on the glass that enabled Duke to score at crucial times to keep Syracuse at bay.
There are a couple notes to take away from this win, of course. The first is that this is, again, a Syracuse team that doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit (even though, according to some on Twitter, the fans do – really, people? Leaving a five point game with 40 seconds left?). The second is that while I’ll admit that I never expected to beat Duke, the performance tonight gave me the belief that yes, this Syracuse team has the ability to beat Louisville and Notre Dame, possibly even Virginia.
Who knows? Maybe this team really does have what it takes to scrape out 20 wins.