By Matt Bradshaw —
It happened last year when Louisville men’s basketball nearly defeated No. 1 Virginia. It happened again tonight as Louisville nearly defeated No. 2 Duke. Both featured heartbreaking collapses for the Cardinals, leading to losses that could have been triumphant upsets.
No. 2 Duke overcame a 23-point deficit to beat No. 16 Louisville 71-69 at the Yum! Center. It seemed like the Cardinals (17-8, 8-4) would roll to victory with their huge lead, then Duke (22-2, 10-1) took complete control of the court with dominate defensive pressure.
“By the time we crossed the half court line, we were limited in our shot clock,” head coach Chris Mack said. “Their hands were everywhere. We didn’t handle their zone. We just didn’t do it.”
In the end, Louisville actually shot better from the field (42 percent) and three (33 percent) than its opponent. The visiting Blue Devils played poorly in both the first half and start of the second, missing easy shots and struggling defensively against the smaller Cardinals team.
The Cards even had a 41-39 rebounding edge, and more points in the paint, but turnovers were their undoing. Twelve steals from Duke, and 17 costly turnovers from Louisville, put the favorites back in the game with the help of a 2-2-1 full-court press.
“We were very fortunate,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They outplayed us for 30 minutes. Not just outplayed. They out-competed us. I commend them. They were probably more deserving of winning. But in the last 10 minutes, we were spectacular. In order to overcome that difference in competitive spirit, we needed to be spectacular.”
The Blue Devils capped a huge offensive run in the second half with a three-pointer, tying the game at 69-69 with 1:16 remaining. They took the lead with free throws and the Cardinals failed to counter, securing a 71-69 Duke win.
Other than not handling Duke’s defense, Louisville didn’t play smart with its 23-point lead. They had open shots and wasted too many, not working deep into the shot clock.
“We get up 23. We took some quick shots. Our ability to be in that moment, for the first time, wasn’t handled the best way,” Mack said.
Sophomore Jordan Nwora led the Cards with 23 points and 12 rebounds. Juniors Dwayne Sutton and Steven Enoch both had terrific performances, with Sutton scoring 15 and Enoch 14.
Graduate guard Christen Cunningham didn’t score, but he dished out a career-best 12 assists. Sophomore Darius Perry played well the first half, while giving into Duke’s pressure during the second. Cunningham, Perry and Sutton combined for 12 turnovers.
“This isn’t all on one guy. This is on all of us,” Mack said. “We were tentative. Every pass, it was like we wanted to get it to the other team. We have to be men with the ball.”
Duke freshman Zion Williamson played most of the second half with four fouls and still finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Fellow freshman Cam Reddish scored 22.
Whereas a win would have pushed them to the top, Louisville’s conference loss drops them to fourth in the ACC With Virginia Tech. The Cards have lost two straight and three of their last four.
Up next, Louisville hosts Clemson on Saturday, Feb. 16 at noon. Opponents like Syracuse and Virginia (twice) approach shortly thereafter.
“I’m stunned,” Mack said. “But I love my group. I feel for them. We outplayed the best team in the country for a long time. Our team will grow from this, as hard as it is to accept. There will be better times.”
It was an extremely low-scoring start. Both teams missed their first four shots until Duke got the first midrange jumper, with the Cards notching two early turnovers. Nwora countered with a three-pointer and Louisville led 3-2 at the first media timeout.
Scoring turned hot after that, with Cards and Blue Devils trading buckets back and forth. Duke took a 15-11 lead, then Sutton completed a fantastic fast break layup to bring it to 15-13.
Perry turned in some time at point guard, making a shot, but the Blue Devils pulled away again for a 19-15 lead. Graduate guard Khwan Fore made his first bucket of the night to cut it to 19-17.
With few fouls called, the game’s pace was quick. Enoch nailed back-to-back three’s and Nwora slammed a fast-break dunk for a 28-23 Louisville lead.
Zion Williamson answered with his own three for Duke, cutting down Louisville’s lead to 28-26. The Cardinals weren’t done, though, and continued to hammer the offensive end with drives and jump shots.
A 8-0 run, capped by a buzzer-beating put-back from Perry, gave U of L a 38-29 lead at halftime. The halftime deficit was Duke’s largest of this season.
In the first five minutes, everything seemed to go right for the Cardinals. Nwora continued scoring, sophomore Malik Williams nailed a three and the team got defensive stops. It helped that Duke struggled shooting, and Louisville led 48-32 with 17 minutes left.
Soon after, the Cardinals worked their lead to 56-36 with 11 minutes to play. They played good defense against the visitors, for sure, and it helped that Duke was shooting 29 percent from the floor.
While few fouls were called in the first half, refs called a plethora in the second. This slowed the game down and, eventually, favored Duke as they settled into a press on defense.
With the score 59-39, the Blue Devils would outscore the home team 25-10 in the following minutes. Williamson played well, despite four fouls, and Duke trailed 69-64 with 2:30 remaining.
A bucket and three-pointer tied the game at 69-69. A game-changing call followed, where Ryan McMahon drew a charge and the refs overturned it because the junior stood in the restricted zone under the basket.
Duke made two free throws, Louisville failed to counter and the Blue Devils won 71-69.
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Photos by Taris Smith & Karen Nguyen / The Louisville Cardinal