NASSAU, Bahamas—“A leader has to look strong before he is strong.”
Those were the words of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski late Saturday night, as he discussed sophomore point guard Quinn Cook Saturday night.
Cook played as strong as he looked in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, scoring the final eight points against Louisville to claim a 76-71 victory and the Blue Devils’ sixth straight November tournament title.
Cook, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, finished with 15 points and six assists on the night, but none were more crucial than a high-arching floater in the lane with 29 seconds on the clock to give Duke a late two-possession lead against the Cardinals.
“Everyone talks about a kid getting confidence,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s when a team has confidence in its point guard that you can take off. This team has great confidence in Quinn, and he’s earned it. And they’ve been very vocal about it.”
The floater was one of several clutch shots down the stretch that the Blue Devils (6-0) made, in what became a hallmark of Duke’s championship weekend. Although the Blue Devils rarely dominated in any of their games, they came up with points at seemingly every crucial juncture to earn three wins in three days.
The first major shot against Louisville (5-1) came earlier in the contest from Cook, after an 18-6 Cardinal run had converted an 11-point Duke advantage into a one-point deficit. Senior point guard Peyton Siva—the emotional leader of Louisville’s second-ranked squad—drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cap off the run, putting momentum squarely in the Cardinals’ corner.
But Cook answered 20 seconds later with a long-range jumper of his own to restore the Duke lead.
A frenetic stretch of play followed the Cook 3-pointer, with the only points in the next three minutes for either side coming on a put-back from Louisville forward Chane Behanan, tying the game at 61. Following three consecutive turnovers—two giveaways by Louisville bookending a Peyton Siva steal—Seth Curry came out of a minor shooting slump to nail a 3-pointer from the corner and put Duke ahead 64-61 with 4:30 to play, a lead which the Blue Devils would hold the rest of the way.
Curry shot just 3-for-11 from the field on the night, but made 6-of-6 free throws to join the other four Duke starters in scoring 14 or more points apiece. The Blue Devil attack was balanced throughout the game, as Curry, Ryan Kelly and Rasheed Sulaimon finished with 14 points each, Cook had 15, and Mason Plumlee added 16.
The distributed scoring was encouraging for Duke in a game where Plumlee rarely got chances to dominate inside, as he often has during the team’s early games. Louisville was expected to take a hit on the interior when it was announced in the early afternoon that 6-foot-10 starting center Gorgui Dieng would not play, but a trio of Cardinal bench players stepped up in Dieng’s absence.
Junior Stephan Van Treese and sophomore Zach Price—who entered the game collectively averaging 1.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game—combined for 12 points and 11 boards, including five offensive rebounds for Van Treese. Freshman Montrezl Harrell also chipped in a 10-point, five-rebound effort.
“We had a very big injury to our basketball team, but it didn’t affect us at all,” head coach Rick Pitino said. “We may not have had as many blocked shots as we would have had if Gorgui was there, but these guys stepped up and did a tremendous job.”
Sulaimon was the leader for Duke in the first half, showing aggressiveness off the dribble—especially in transition—to register 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting before halftime. Then the early second half was the Ryan Kelly show. The senior scored eight of the Blue Devils’ first 16 points of the half, as his midrange game proved a perfect antidote to the 2-3 zone defense that Louisville employed at times.
“We just tried to mix it up as much as possible,” Pitino said of the shifting Cardinal defense.
But after that, Cook took control as the game entered its final stages. He got a late hand from the Cardinals as well, who made just 2-of-6 free throws in the game’s final three minutes, including three misses by guard Russ Smith, blemishing an otherwise excellent 17-point, seven-rebound effort.
“I thought if we make our free throws there, we win the game,” Pitino said. “Russ is a very good free throw shooter, but he was working his ass off so much defensively, so much on pick-and-rolls—I don’t even know if I could have hit the rim.”
Smith’s backcourt counterpart Siva chipped in 19 points of his own, but needed 15 shots to reach that number, and committed six turnovers to his four assists. Still, it took quality performances from all five Duke starters, plus key contributions from the Blue Devil bench, to take down Siva and the Cardinals.
And even more than that, Duke needed every ounce of its chemistry and poise to emerge victorious from a taxing three-game tournament.
“I told them after that game that it was an honor to coach them,” Krzyzewski said. “They responded to everything, and the main thing they responded to was the pressure of the moment. And when kids respond to the pressure of the moment like they did, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”