Rarely does a game so hyped as Saturday’s ACC college basketball game between second-ranked and undefeated Syracuse and No. 17 Duke live up to the hype. Even more rare that the game not only meets that hype, but far exceeds it. Yet, that’s what the Orange and Blue Devils gave the country Saturday night, playing one of the best conference games in a long time as Syracuse outlasted Duke 91-89 in overtime.
The Orange are now 21-0 and 8-0 in the conference. Duke fell to 17-5, 6-3, a conference record that doesn’t really replicate how well the Blue Devils are playing right now. Duke even matured a bit Saturday night. The Blue Devils played overtime without standout freshman Jabari Parker (fouled out), while center Amile Jefferson and hot shooting guard Andre Dawkins also fouled out. Yet, the Blue Devils were right in it until the end, forcing overtime on a Rasheed Sulaimon three-pointer at the regulation buzzer, then missing on a desperation shot at the end of overtime after Syracuse senior C.J. Fair went 1-for-2 at the line to give the Orange their two-point lead.
Syracuse now sits one game up on Virginia (16-5, 7-1), pending the result of another huge game tomorrow afternoon, as the Cavaliers visit Pittsburgh (18-3, 6-2) that will also go a long way toward shaking out the top of the conference. The Orange got 28 points from Fair and 24 from fellow forward Jerami Grant, as the Blue Devils really didn’t have the effective interior size necessary to slow down the Orange.
The real winner Saturday night, however, is the ACC itself. With the struggles this season of traditional power North Carolina, and many other of the conference’s traditional programs not hitting their mark this season, the conference needed a bit of a shot in the arm and Saturday’s game at the Carrier Dome certainly provided that. With the game on ESPN and being given a Final Four feel with Vanessa Williams singing the National Anthem and a now rare broadcast of the starting lineups being announced (this needs to happen more often, by the way), the game was far more than just a key conference matchup.
Saturday’s classic showed that some of the nation’s best basketball can still be played in the ACC and that the conference needs to be respected on a national level. Even those long-time ACC fans who hate Duke because that’s what long-time ACC fans do, but who also hate Syracuse as the new school from the old rival conference (Big East), had to find themselves transfixed by this game. It was that great. You can quibble about calls here and there and you can question some things each team did, but you can’t question the heart with which each team played and the game the players provided the nation.
This Syracuse win came in the type of game you see in late March or very early April, not on the first of February. And for the ACC, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Fortunately for the conference, the ACC has a chance to double its luck Sunday afternoon, as the game between Virginia and Pittsburgh should be another great one, and also matters at the top of the conference.
With Maryland evacuating the ACC after this season and Louisville joining, it’s only going to get better for the ACC. Far from simply being the playground for Tobacco Road, ACC basketball showed tonight it can be the showcase for the entire country.