Two weeks ago, the Blue Devils had lost four of their past five games and didn’t have much positive momentum.
That has changed quickly.
The Blue Devils shook off short rest and performed down the stretch to beat No. 13 Louisville 72-65. It is by far Duke’s best win of the season, and it has the potential to be an inflection point in a season where the Blue Devils (18-6, 7-4 ACC) have had to fight like crazy for every conference win.
“Two weeks ago, if we would have come out and played this game, we probably would have gotten blown out,” Grayson Allen said. “We’re growing at a really fast pace. Mentally, we’re far, far above what we were two weeks ago. Losses, learning the hard way helps out. Also, these guys are maturing.”
The Blue Devils went 10-for-12 from the free-throw line in the final 3:13 to pull out the 72-65 win. The player that missed those two shots, Derryck Thornton, banked in a jump shot just under the shot clock with 33 seconds to play.
“Guys wanted the ball,” Matt Jones said. “We made winning plays, and when we went to the free-throw line, we made our free throws. Those are signs of toughness. And people had strong faces.
“We knew that we had been in this position before, and we were just drawing off of experience.”
When Louisville took a 58-57 lead with 6:12 left in the game, Jones and his teammates were thinking of similar experiences – the losses to Syracuse and Notre Dame, Jones said. This time, though, was different.
Duke put the ball in Ingram’s hands, and he either got himself to the line or set one of his teammates up to do the same. Ingram led Duke in rebounds (10), free-throw attempts (eight) and assists (four). He also scored 18 points on an efficient 5-for-9 shooting night.
“We did it once, and it worked, so you keep doing it until they stop it,” Allen said of going to Ingram. “That comeback that we made there was big for us as a team. It showed some resiliency and some fight.”
The Blue Devils presented a challenge for Louisville’s various zone defenses by putting four capable 3-point shooters on the floor. That meant the Cardinals couldn’t help as much off of guys on defense – or at least that they shouldn’t have, as Duke shooters left open went 9-for-21 from deep (42.9 percent).
“Duke is a very unusual team to play against because they can put four shooters on the floor, and you have to be careful where you help,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “You have to keep them on the sideline and out of the middle, and that’s tough to do.”
The Blue Devils opened the game with great energy and ran out to a 9-2 lead. The Cardinals struggled to hit shots in the opening half, shooting just 31.3 percent from the floor. The Blue Devils managed to end the first half on a 6-0 run despite shooting 2-of-8 from the field, but the Cardinals were even more off the mark. Duke had an 11-point halftime lead, but it didn’t last.
Mike Krzyzewski yelled, “Hey! Let’s go!” at his team with 14:48 left in the second half. The Duke lead was 44-36 at this point, but Krzyzewski could sense the vibe with his team was off. And he was right. The Cardinals were in the midst of a 13-0 run that would cut the deficit to 44-43. Duke went more than five minutes without a point and committed four turnovers in that span. The tiredness from two games in three days was setting in at that point.
The Blue Devils did find a second wind and kept pace with the Cardinals as some offense broke out in a previously stagnant game. Duke’s man-to-man, which did not have defenders switching on ball screens, lost its effectiveness in the second half. Louisville was shooting 70 percent for the second half with six minutes left in the game. The Cardinals took their first lead since it was 2-0 with 6:12 left in the game as Quentin Snider completed a 3-point play at the foul line to put the Cardinals up 58-57.
“But this time, we were able to overcome that,” Jones said. “And that’s the signs that we’re learning. That’s the signs that we’re growing up as a team, and that we’re learning to win. Two weeks ago, we wouldn’t be able to close this game out like we did.”
This was Duke’s third attempt at the two games in three days turnaround. The first two ended with losses to Syracuse and at Miami on the back end. But this time was different for Duke, as the Blue Devils opened the toughest stretch of the schedule with their most impressive win.
“We’ve been through so much,” Jones said, “And we would be doing ourselves an injustice if we didn’t learn from what we’ve been through.”