As much fun as rallying from a 23-point deficit to win in the final 10 minutes was for Duke, the No. 2 Blue Devils know they can’t rely on such things and expect success.
In preparation for Saturday night’s ACC game with N.C. State at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils have spent plenty of time dissecting the entirety of their 71-69 win at No. 16 Louisville on Tuesday night even as everyone else celebrates their epic comeback.
“The critical thing for us to learn is why we were in that position in the first place,” Duke co-captain Jack White said. “We’re obviously trying to avoid that for the rest of the season. It’s a good thing we know we can respond to adverse situations like that but we have to be in position where we don’t put ourselves in that position.”
The Blue Devils (22-2, 10-1 ACC) trailed 59-36 after a Louisville basket with 9:55 to play. They outscored the Cardinals 35-10 the rest of the game to complete the comeback from the second-largest, second-half deficit in school history. No Mike Krzyzewski coached team has ever erased such a large second-half deficit to win.
Duke shot poorly from the field and their offensive efficiency dipped as low as 72 (which translates to 72 points over 100 possessions) just prior to its furious rally. Duke’s offensive efficiency for the season is 123.3, third best in the country. Duke finished the game at 96.
“We were playing some of our worst basketball in the first 30 minutes of that game,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said.
Poor shooting and a lack of a transition game caused Duke to face such a steep deficit. Struggles on the defensive end, where Duke recorded only one steal in the first half, cascaded throughout the team’s performance.
“We just weren’t playing with any sense of urgency,” Jones said. “We were just lax and walking around out there. They were really getting whatever they wanted.”
The Cardinals led 38-29 at halftime, the largest halftime deficit Duke has faced this season. Rather than fighting back early in the second half, the Blue Devils scored just seven points over the first 10 minutes after intermission and appeared on their way to a lopsided loss.
“We just weren’t ourselves for that first three-quarters of the game,” White said. “We just kind of let them run over the top of us. Then we finally put our foot down and made a stand and took the game to them.”
Even those strong words represent an understatement.
Duke scored 35 of the game’s final 45 points as Louisville missed eight of its final 10 shots while committing nine turnovers in the game’s final nine minutes. The Blue Devils used a 2-2-1 zone press, a new defensive alignment, to confuse the Cardinals.
The historic rally allowed Duke to stretch its winning streak to eight games in a row and maintain sole possession of first place in the ACC standings.
Virginia (21-2, 9-2) and North Carolina (18-5, 9-2) are one game back of the Blue Devils.
After Saturday night’s game with N.C. State (18-7, 6-6), Duke must still play UNC both at home and on the road, plus road games at Syracuse (17-8, 8-4) and Virginia Tech (19-5, 8-4) over its final seven regular-season games.
While the Blue Devils are trying to secure a No. 1 overall seed for next month’s NCAA tournament, other teams are fighting to just secure entry into the field of 68. Others are aiming to improve their potential seed.
Krzyzewski said a lesson from Louisville, beyond the fact that no deficit appears to big for his team to overcome, is that the Blue Devils need to realize they are in for a fight every night.
“February is a crazy month, because it’s a long haul before March, and everybody is hungry,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re trying to make their marks. These kids can already feel like they’ve made a mark. And so, you’re playing against somebody that can be hungrier than you, and our thing going into the game was ‘Play harder than them,’ and we weren’t able to do that (at Louisville). So, that’s a lesson for our guys.”