About 24 hours after Duke’s often wayward guard Grayson Allen experienced his worst statistical game, his team needed him and needed him badly.
Mike Krzyzewski harbored no fear in turning to Allen and the move produced one of No. 14 Duke’s most impressive wins of the season
“I believe in him,” Duke’s coach said. “I love him. And I thought what he did today was sensational. I loved it. I loved it. He was himself today.”
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When guard Frank Jackson picked up three first-half fouls, Allen replaced the freshman who had replaced him in the starting lineup.
A day after going scoreless for the first time in two years, Allen scored 18 points that, along with 25 from Jayson Tatum and 24 from Luke Kennard, enabled fifth-seeded Duke to overcome a 12-point deficit and beat fourth-seeded Louisville 81-77 in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals at Barclays Center.
“He’s one of the best players in the country,” Duke senior forward Amile Jefferson said. “When he gets going he just makes our team better. He’s been through it. He’s a veteran guy who has won a national championship and has seen all the shades of college basketball.”
Allen’s had plenty of down moments this season -- his four technical fouls and his one-game suspension for tripping an opposing player. Another one came on Wednesday when, in Duke’s 79-72 win over Clemson, he went scoreless for the first time since 2015.
“We really needed a spark off the bench,” Allen, the preseason ACC player of the year, said, “and I didn’t think I did a good job of that in the first game. So I thought I could be better than that.”
It was vital for Duke (25-8) to stay alive in the ACC Tournament long enough to meet rival North Carolina in Friday night’s semifinals.
Jackson had scored in double figures in the previous four games. But he was called for his third foul with 6:34 left in the first half. Louisville (24-8) built a 26-21 lead but Duke scored on its final nine possessions of the first half, with Allen and Tatum each scoring six points, as the Blue Devils took a 39-37 halftime lead.
Louisville pounded the Blue Devils early in the second half, driving through the lane with ease for easy shots. The Cardinals made 9 of their first 12 shots of the second half and, with 13:17 to play, led 61-49.
But the Cardinals stopped scoring so easily, mainly because Duke threw a surprise zone defense at them with 11 minutes to play.
“Any port in a storm, so to speak,” Krzyzewski said. “We could not stop them in transition in man...And they missed some shots. It’s not like we played a great zone. But it changed the tempo a little.”
With that, Allen, Kennard and Tatum drove aggressively to score and allow Duke to come roaring back.
There was a Kennard layup and an old-fashioned 3-point play by Tatum.
Allen drove to score on a bank shot. Tatum stole the ball as part of Duke’s zone defense and drove for a thunderous slam dunk to cut Louisville’s lead to 62-58.
Ray Spalding rebounded a Donovan Mitchell miss and scored for the Cardinals, but Duke scored the next seven points.
Allen was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer and hit three free throws, Kennard nailed a 3-pointer to tie the game and Tatum made a free throw with 8:06 left for a 65-64 Duke lead.
With the score tied at 70, Kennard drilled deep 3-pointer with 4:45 left giving Duke a 73-70 lead. After the ball went through the net, Kennard turned the crowd and raised his arms in celebration.
Mangok Mathiang scored for Louisville but Kennard answered with a basket for Duke.
After Quentin Snider hit one free throw for Louisville, Tatum sank an open 3-pointer from the corner and the Blue Devils led 78-73 with 2:23 to play.
Duke didn’t make another shot from the field, but Kennard hit three free throws in the final 22 seconds to hold off the Cardinals.
Tatum and Kennard led Duke in scoring, but Allen’s contributions were vital. His teammates knew he had it in him despite his poor game the day before.
“We were able to talk to him and say, ‘Just be yourself,’” Kennard said. “He responds. That’s just who he is. He responded to what we talked about.”