Mike Krzyzewski said the words, even if deep inside he really didn’t believe them.
After Louisville pushed its halftime lead from nine points to 20, Krzyzewski looked his players in their eyes during a timeout and told them what he later admitted was a white lie.
“He said `We are gonna win’,” Duke freshman Zion Williamson said. “He’s not being cocky with it. He’s just keeping our emotions high by keeping our faith.”
As a West Point cadet 50 years ago, Krzyzewski learned there’s a price for dishonesty because it violates the school’s honor code.
He also learned something about leadership.
“At West Point, that was one of things I learned as a cadet,” Krzyzewski said. “Even when you don’t feel like it’s going to go, your men better not see that in you, and as a result, you can speak into action sometimes.”
The Blue Devils believed and pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in school history, rallying from 23 points down in the final 9:13 to beat Louisville 71-69 Tuesday night.
Duke scored 35 of the game’s final 45 points. A raucous sold-out crowd of 22,046 at the KFC Yum! Center came dressed in black for a planned “blackout” event.
Taking the cue from their coach, the Blue Devils silenced them with one amazing turnaround.
“It shows who we really are,” Duke freshman forward Cam Reddish said. “We’re a team of fighters. Coach gave us a lot of confidence. We all just came out with the mentality just to fight.”
Reddish hit some of the game’s biggest shots while scoring 16 of his 22 points in the second half. All of those 16 points came after Louisville took a 59-36 with 9:55 left.
His 3-pointer at 9:11 started the comeback.
His 3-pointer at 1:28 tied the game at 69.
His two free throws, after being fouled in the lane with 14.9 seconds left, were the game’s final points that lifted Duke to the win.
“Cam hit dagger shots,” Krzyzewski said.
Zion Williamson returns
But this was far from a one-man show. Duke (22-2, 10-1 ACC) needed contributors all over the court to stay atop the ACC standings and run its winning streak to eight games.
After not being called for a foul in the first half, Williamson picked up three fouls in the first 3:40 of the second half. After some time on the bench, he returned with 12:41 left and Duke trailing 54-34.
Fourteen seconds later, Williamson picked up his fourth foul. Krzyzewski removed him and didn’t insert him back into the lineup until 9:41 remained and the Cardinals led 59-36.
Williamson played the remainder of the game, scoring 11 points with four rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot without fouling out. Krzyzewski called that performance “great.”
“That’s why you come to Duke to be part of games like that,” Williamson said. “Just to be a part of that, it’s a blessing. I have to thank God for that to even put me in this situation. That’s all it is.”
Krzyzewski made a key defensive change, switching to 2-2-1 zone press that stifled the Cardinals offense. Louisville was 2 of 10 from the field with nine turnovers over the game’s final nine minutes.
Krzyzewski also changed Duke’s lineup, removing ineffective center Marques Bolden to go with a smaller lineup. That included seldom-used guard Jordan Goldwire, who played the final 9:41.
‘I can play defense’
In 11:29 of play in the game, Goldwire didn’t score. But he contributed two steals, two assists and two rebounds. All came in the final 9:41.
“Jordan’s a really good athlete,” Krzyzewski said. “He had the best look of anyone on the bench. Sometimes when you look down and he was sitting at the edge of his seat wanting to get in. So, let’s get him in, and then you didn’t want to take him out.”
Goldwire teamed with Tre Jones at the top of the Duke zone to pressure the Cardinals into the mistakes that allowed Duke to win.
“Just effort,” Goldwire said. “I can play defense. I can give the team a spark anyway I could. We were down by a lot. We knew it was going to be a lot but we knew we were capable of it.”
Krzyzewski suggested the 2-2-1 zone defense could become a larger part of Duke’s arsenal. Goldwire also has earned himself some additional minutes.
“It gets Goldwire in the rotation there,” Krzyzewski said.
Minutes after his post-game press conference ended, the clock struck midnight. As Tuesday turned to Wednesday, Krzyzewski’s birthday arrived and he turned 72.
On the final day of his 71st year on earth, he logged career win No. 1,122, one that certainly won’t be forgotten any time soon.
“We were spectacular for nine-and-a-half minutes,” Krzyzewski said after the biggest comeback win of his Duke career. “And it was just good enough to make do.”
Even if it took a fib to help his team get there.