Nearly every obstacle that’s been placed in front of Duke this basketball season – and there have been plenty – has been met with yet another strong response by the talented Blue Devils.
So many injuries to so many different players. Playing without their Hall of Fame coach for seven games. Having to decide who will populate the backcourt and who will take charge in key situations.
On Thursday at the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils’ inability to stop Louisville from driving to the basket for easy shots had Duke in a 12-point hole with 13 minutes to play.
Normally a stanch man-to-man defensive team, Duke switched to a zone defense and, once again, found a route to success in a stirring 81-77 comeback win against the Cardinals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Louisville made 9 of its first 12 shots of the second half because the shots were so close to the rim. The zone changed that. Duke now has not only another win over a top 50 team, but another weapon for opposing teams to worry about as March continues.
“Being able to make changes on the fly, make adjustments and go with it,” Duke senior forward Amile Jefferson said. “They were scoring a lot in the paint, and that zone kind of helped us to not let them continue to just keep dropping the ball down there and getting easy buckets. It was a great win. Those little changes, those little nuances we made throughout the game allowed us and helped us to get the win.”
Duke’s performance sets up a classic game that seems misplaced. The Blue Devils and North Carolina will meet in an ACC tournament game on Friday for the first time since 2011.
That last game was in Greensboro, the tournament’s most-frequent home, and decided the ACC championship that year.
This time, it is a semifinal game and will be played in New York City.
North Carolina is the tournament’s top seed, which it earned by winning the regular-season title for the second year in a row. To win its second ACC tournament in a row, the Tar Heels have to subdue fifth-seeded Duke, which wound up with such a low seed because it had to deal with so many things during the regular season.
Beating Louisville allowed Duke to avenge one of its tougher losses. Back on Jan. 14, Jefferson was out with a bruised bone in his right foot, and Krzyzewski wasn’t coaching as he recovered from lower back surgery.
With associate head coach Jeff Capel running the team, Duke turned the ball over 18 times and lost 78-69 at Louisville. Junior guard Grayson Allen scored 23 points but turned the ball over six times that day. Freshman forward Jayson Tatum had as many made field goals while going 3-of-11 as he did turnovers.
On Thursday, both players were better the second time around against the Cardinals in another sign of Duke’s growth. Tatum made 9 of 15 shots to score 25 points, and Allen added 18 points off the bench.
Sophomore guard Luke Kennard’s double-double of 24 points and 10 rebounds gave Duke an attack that was too much for Louisville to handle.
Now the Blue Devils get another crack at UNC. The teams split their regular-season games with Duke winning 86-78 at Durham last month and UNC winning 90-83 at Chapel Hill last Saturday.
Duke’s been through plenty already. Now the Blue Devils have to play the league’s hottest team while playing their third game in three days.
We’ll see what answer this Duke team has this time.
Duke vs. UNC
When: 7 p.m., Friday
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn
TV: ESPN, WRAL