LOUISVILLE, Ky.—In the first three games of Duke’s four-game gauntlet against ranked opponents, when the going got tough, things went the Blue Devils’ way.
Whether it was Derryck Thornton’s late leaner against then-No. 13 Louisville at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Grayson Allen’s buzzer-beater against No. 7 Virginia or the Blue Devils’ come-from-behind victory against No. 5 North Carolina, Duke made the winning plays it needed in the knick of time.
Saturday’s second half at the KFC Yum! Center was the complete opposite—things unraveled right when it appeared the Blue Devils were on their way to a sixth straight win.
After a 3-pointer by Luke Kennard extended Duke’s lead to 44-31 just three minutes into the second half, the Blue Devils lost their way in a 71-64 loss to No. 18 Louisville that featured just about all the things that could’ve gone wrong for Duke. The Cardinals closed the game on a 30-12 run, including a 22-5 stretch that swung all the momentum in Louisville’s favor.
“You have to adapt, and we were not strong enough to adapt to a different environment, and a tough environment, with a team that’s going after us like crazy,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
For a Blue Devil team sorely lacking depth, the series of unfortunate events began at the 13:11 mark when Kennard picked up his fourth personal foul. Already playing without junior Matt Jones—who sat out of Saturday’s game with a sprained ankle sustained against the Tar Heels—Duke was left with an unenviable decision: keep the freshman on the floor and risk fouling out, or resort to an unconventional two-bigs lineup with Marshall Plumlee and Chase Jeter.
But as things turned out, the Blue Devils’ choice was made for them, and the answer ended up being “both.”
Krzyzewski inserted Jeter for Kennard immediately after the whistle, but the Franklin, Ohio, native returned to the floor a few minutes later, after Jeter extended Duke’s lead to 11 with a pair of free throws. But with 9:18 remaining in the contest, freshman point guard Derryck Thornton was hit hard on a drive to the basket and stayed down clutching his right shoulder. The freshman stayed on the ground for nearly a minute before heading to the bench at the next stoppage of play and eventually to the locker room.
Despite injuries, foul trouble and a frenzied home crowd as the Cardinals rallied back, the Blue Devils found themselves still within striking distance, trailing just 61-57 after three 3-pointers by Damion Lee in a 2:18 span vaulted Louisville into the lead.
That was, until Duke lost its cool.
Within a two-minute span, the Blue Devils collected two technical fouls—one each on Krzyzewski and Allen. Both technicals came with Duke arguing fouls called against Allen—with the last one fouling him out with a statline of 29 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including five 3-pointers. Without the guard on the floor to make plays and with Brandon Ingram struggling through a game-to-forget with just eight points and 10 turnovers, the Blue Devils were finally all out of answers.
“They made good defensive plays, they made a lot of stops and forced a couple turnovers and they’re at home so that kind of played in to it,” Allen said. “The crowd kind of got going and all the momentum shifted their way and we weren’t able to bounce back and stop them.”
For a Blue Devil team that has embraced the challenge of playing heavy minutes with short rotations, it was a moment of mental weakness that sent things crashing down.
“[On] my last foul specifically, I just let out my emotions in a way that I shouldn’t have,” Allen said. “In that kind of situation, I have to control them.”
Although things got as dark as possible for the Blue Devils during the course of the final 20 minutes Saturday, Duke leaves the Bluegrass State with a few positives in tow. After being ruled out Friday, Jones went through warm-ups before sitting out the game and appears on schedule to return before the end of the regular season, maybe by Duke’s next game, a Thursday home contest against Florida State. Likewise, Thornton’s injury does not seem to be as severe as originally feared, as the freshman returned late in the game and brought his team within two points with a pair of baskets.
And then there’s the growth of the team as Duke transformed from a squad without a win against a ranked opponent to a team that now has three. Thornton and Kennard have grown up in the last 13 days, each delivering key baskets and defensive stops in the biggest moments in recent games. Jeter drew a charge Saturday and scored five points, after scoring just eight total in ACC play entering the game. And although Allen and Ingram had afternoons that might not soon register on their personal highlight tapes for different reasons, both have shown the ability to take over games, giving Duke the luxury of having two go-to scorers when it needs a basket.
If ever there was a question about the Blue Devils’ identity earlier in the season, their ability to rise to the occasion against long odds in the last four games should settle any doubts.
“Look, we’re 9-5, we have 20 wins, we’re young,” Krzyzewski said. “My guys are warriors. They’ve been warriors the whole season. I love coaching them. I’m proud as I can be of coaching my team. It’s a different Duke team than last year or [Christian] Laettner or [J.J.] Redick or Grant Hill, but it’s a damn good Duke team. And it’s a team that fights like hell together.”
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