By Chris Thomsen BROOKLYN, N.Y. – On the most significant night of the season, the least understood player on the Syracuse men’s basketball team led his team to its first-ever ACC Tournament win.
Marek Dolezaj scored a career-high 20 points in the Orange’s 73-64 win over Wake Forest on Tuesday. The freshman dominated in the paint, throwing down multiple slam dunks while fighting for rebounds and creating shots for his teammates in the high post.
Dolezaj had a hard time hiding his happiness on the court. As he retreated on defense following a bucket, it seemed like his smile got bigger every time.
“It was a lot of fun,” Dolezaj said. “I enjoyed this game. But like I said, I’ll get some rest and focus on tomorrow’s game.”
Last year, playing in such a huge tournament wasn’t even in Dolezaj’s mind. He moved from his native Slovakia to Syracuse after being recruited by SU assistant coach Adrian Autry. Dolezaj’s coach had sent Autry an email showing Dolezaj’s highlights. It only took a few phone calls to convince Autry to fly overseas to visit the recruit. Syracuse eventually offered a scholarship, which Dolezaj took.
But that was just the beginning of Dolezaj’s relationship with Autry, who has worked with the Slovakian all year to integrate him into playing an Americanized style of basketball.
“I think Coach [Autry} has done a great job improving his game as the season has gone on,” guard Tyus Battle said. “He developed a jumpshot. He makes pretty good decisions in the middle. He’s been more aggressive and making the right plays as the season has gone on.”
Dolezaj has certainly improved as the season has advanced. He played a key role in SU’s wins over Boston College, Pitt, Miami and Clemson earlier this year.
But last night’s performance showed Dolezaj’s true potential as a stretch forward. The freshman played a career-high in minutes, shooting 6-for-7 from the field and 8-for-10 from the free-throw line.
“Marek was tremendous getting to the open shots,” head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He’s been looking to score better over the last part of the year.”
Yet Dolezaj faces a bigger challenge in North Carolina, who Syracuse faces on Wednesday night in the second round of the tournament.
UNC’s Luke Maye, named the Most Improved Player in the conference, will attract attention in Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. It might be up to the relatively-unknown freshman to stop him.