LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Just when it seemed as if the bench couldn’t get any shorter for Duke, it did.
And this time, the Blue Devils could not survive.
Point guard Derryck Thornton suffered a right shoulder injury with nine minutes remaining, and short-handed No. 20 Duke fell victim to No. 18 Louisville's tenacious pressure in a 71-64 loss Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. Duke held a double-digit lead near the midpoint of the second half, but the Cardinals forced six turnovers in the game's final 8:52 and converted them into baskets at the other end, scoring 19 points off of 18 Blue Devil giveaways for the afternoon.
Sophomore Grayson Allen scored a game-high 29 points, but fouled out on a charge with 3:55 left to play—forcing Thornton to re-enter the game—and received a technical for his reaction to the call.
A 54-49 Blue Devil lead at the time of Thornton’s departure quickly turned into a 63-57 Cardinal advantage with five minutes to play—part of a Louisville 30-12 run to close out the game and put away a tired Duke squad playing its fourth game in 13 days against a ranked foe.
“I thought the physicality of the game caught up to us more than the physicality of the week,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That was the most physical second half we’ve ever been in this year, and we weren’t able to respond at the appropriate level to them…. Just the intensity, the physicality of the game did not lend itself to us with the injuries and foul trouble. Not a good combination for us.”
The Blue Devils (20-7, 9-5 in the ACC) made a furious last-ditch attempt at a comeback, bringing the score within two with less than two minutes to play thanks to consecutive buckets from Thornton. But Louisville swingman Damion Lee—who led the Cardinals with 24 points—answered with two free throws with 1:03 left to push the lead back to 68-64, and Thornton’s ensuing runner in the lane rolled off the rim.
Sophomore Jaylen Johnson then stepped to the line with 41.5 seconds remaining and stuck the dagger in Duke’s comeback hopes with a pair of free throws.
Down 12 with 12 minutes to play following a Marshall Plumlee dunk, Louisville (21-6, 10-4) turned up the defensive intensity and employed a full-court press on every Duke possession after using it at times in the first half. The Cardinals promptly went on an 11-4 run as the Blue Devil offense started to crumble, causing Krzyzewski to call a timeout.
It only got worse for Duke after the timeout—Thornton hit the ground hard on the next possession and got up grabbing his right shoulder in obvious pain. As the Chatsworth, Calif., native left the game and headed to the locker room, the Blue Devils weathered the storm for a few minutes, but Lee knocked down three straight 3-pointers and Johnson added a dunk to help put Louisville ahead 61-57.
“We knew they had a very difficult game against North Carolina [Wednesday]. We just wanted to keep them playing the heat, and we played for our run,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “I thought we trapped intelligently. When people went down they made mistakes, but remember they’re coming off a tough North Carolina game, and we knew that.”
Freshman Brandon Ingram looked poised for a big game after nailing two triples in the opening two minutes for Duke, but struggled the rest of the way and finished with eight points and a career-high 10 turnovers.
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Pitino praised Ingram after the game, and pointed out how his squad made a concerted effort to jam and switch defenders on the 6-foot-9 swingman as much as possible. The Cardinals’ relentless full-court pressure and aggressive defense gave Ingram fits, and the freshman just did not have enough left in the tank to overcome their intensity.
“Tiredness beat me today,” Ingram said. “We were sloppy and turnovers beat us today.”
Before fouling out, Allen continued to shoulder the load offensively for the Blue Devils, finishing with 29 points to lead the team in scoring for the fifth time in six games. The sophomore poured in 19 first-half points and connected on 4-of-5 triples to stretch the Duke lead to eight before the halftime buzzer sounded.
The game was tied at 24 with 6:37 left to play in the first half, but the Blue Devils rattled off a 13-5 run to put some distance between themselves and the Cardinals. Allen accounted for 11 of Duke’s 13 points in that run, slicing to the basket and knocking down shots from the outside—including a wing triple to beat the clock on the half’s final possession.
Junior Matt Jones—who sprained his left ankle in the first half of Wednesday’s win against North Carolina—went through pregame warm-ups after being ruled out of Saturday’s game by the team Friday, but wound up not seeing the floor. Jones was not on crutches—as he was after Wednesday’s game—and was without any sort of protective brace, leaving Krzyzewski optimistic as to his availability moving forward.
“The progress he made is remarkable,” Krzyzewski said. “When he left the court against Carolina, he swelled up so much. I thought, first of all, there might be a break. We found out the next day it wasn’t, but for him to even suit up today shows that he’s on a good track…I would hope that he’d be ready by Thursday [against Florida State].”
Now through its most demanding four-game stretch of the season, Duke gets a little bit of a break before returning to host the Seminoles.