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Duke Leaned on the Heroics of R.J. Barrett Without Zion Williamson

Saturday's win over Syracuse proved that R.J. Barrett and Duke can go into a raucous atmosphere and capture a victory without Zion Williamson on the court.

Duke is not done just yet. 

With Zion Williamson out, R.J. Barrett and the Blue Devils avenged a loss to Syracuse earlier this season with a solid 75-65 win in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse made it a game, but poor shooting in the second half allowed Duke to seize control.

The Orange led at halftime and committed just seven turnovers on the night, while forcing Duke into difficult situations all game They had chances to extend their lead in the second half, but shot just 34.3% from the field (21.7% from three). It was frustrating for Syracuse fans, which watched their team play effective basketball, only to fall short in the closing moments. Barrett consistently found space in the Syracuse zone and shot well, going 14-of-20 from the floor and racking up 30 points. Alex O’Connell knocked down five threes and scored 20 himself, making up for cold nights from Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.

A tragedy transpired leading up to the game. On Wednesday night, Jim Boeheim accidentally struck and killed 51-year-old Jorge Jimenez after Syracuse’s win over Louisville. Syracuse held a moment of silence before the game in memoriam. It was an emotional night at the Carrier Dome, which was packed with the largest crowd at an on-campus game in history. Boeheim, shaken by the incident, was nonetheless back on the bench to coach his team against Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils.  

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Wednesday also saw Zion shockingly tear his shoe and sprain his knee in the first 30 seconds against UNC, sending Duke to an embarrassing loss. The NBA subsequently proposed lowering the draft age to 18 in the uproar over the injury.

But Duke did not look fazed without their superstar. The raucous crowd and Syracuse’s spirited effort did not rattle the Blue Devils whatsoever. Without Zion, the offense ran almost exclusively through Barrett, who did a tremendous job distributing the ball to open shooters. He also led the team with seven assists on the night.

It was not a clinical offensive showing, but Duke was far from lost. Syracuse, on the other hand, will likely want another shot at Duke at some point this season. The Orange match up well—even with Williamson on the floor—and a half-decent shooting performance could have tilted the balance of the game. But they struggled mightily from the field following an emotional three days as a team.

Syracuse looks destined for its usual fate this decade: underseeded in the NCAA tournament and still extremely dangerous, while Duke proved its championship mettle in this game. They've blown teams out, come back from massive deficits and won with buzzer-beating shots, but this road victory, without arguably the nation's top player, was as impressive as any win this season for the Blue Devils.