LOUISVILLE, Ky.—For more than a half hour Tuesday night, Duke looked dead in the water. Trailing by 23, the Blue Devils were certainly on their way to just their third loss of the season.
Then the Cardinal lead dwindled. 16, then 14, then 12, then 10. Zion Williamson then pumped his fist, adding a free throw for emphasis as Duke was within seven.
Were the Blue Devils about to make it happen?
Second-ranked Duke dominated the final 10 minutes to pull off the most improbable of comebacks and stun No. 16 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center, winning 71-69 to stay perfect on the road in ACC play. The Blue Devils scored 14 of the last 17 points, as freshman Cam Reddish scored 10 down the stretch to help Duke overcome as large a deficit as it has in the Coach K era.
“I told my team, I said, ‘Look, you’re not losers, but you’re playing like losers,’” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “[Louisville] outplayed us for 30 minutes. I mean, not just outplayed, they outcompeted us. I commend them. They probably were more deserving of winning, but in the last 10 minutes, we were spectacular.”
Following an R.J. Barrett layup to bring the Blue Devils (22-2, 10-1 in the ACC) within five, as close as they had been since late in the first half, Reddish canned a 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 66-64. And after a Jordan Nwora triple in response stretched the Cardinal lead back to five, Tre Jones stripped the ball away to bring Duke back within three.
Reddish then came up huge yet again, drilling a stone cold trey to tie things at 69 apiece with less than 90 seconds to play.
“We work so much, we get a ton of shots up in practice, so misses don’t really affect us that much and we knew we had to keep on shooting,” said Reddish, who missed all three of his long-distance attempts in the first half. “During halftime, Coach came in and he didn’t want to get on us too, too bad. He said we were going to win the game. We trusted that, went out there and just played our game.”
Both teams came up empty on their next trips, respectively, setting the stage for the hosts to grab the lead in the final minute. But Nwora, Louisville’s leading scorer on the night with 23 points, missed a 3-pointer to give the Blue Devils a chance to go back in front for the first time in more than 25 minutes.
Reddish was whistled for a charge with 14.9 ticks remaining, seemingly giving the hosts the final possession of regulation. That was until the refs checked the monitor, overturning the initial call since Ryan McMahon was in the restricted area and giving the Blue Devil freshman two free throws.
Reddish cooly converted both, giving Duke a 71-69 lead and capping an epic final push.
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“We weren’t ready to play at the beginning,” Barrett said. “They just kept taking it to us, but you know, somewhere with 7:30 left we found a spark and just kept pressuring them and kept going.”
Louisville (17-8, 8-4) would get one last shot to send things to overtime, but a Christen Cunningham jumper rimmed out just before the final buzzer.
Tuesday’s game began with as ugly a four-minute sequence as any. Neither team could get its offensive juices flowing as the two sides combined for just five points on 2-of-15 shooting.
But two of the ACC’s five best offenses would not stay that quiet for long.
The Blue Devils and Cardinals continued to exchange leads, with neither side going up by more than four for nearly 15 minutes. Louisville then found its groove and began to stretch the lead. A Steven Enoch triple brought the black-clad fans inside the KFC Yum! Center to their feet, and the Cardinals kept it going.
The hosts went on an 11-3 run in just more than four minutes, taking advantage of lazy transition defense by Duke and grabbing a 38-29 lead at halftime, capped by a buzzer-beating tip-in by Darius Perry.
With the Blue Devils showing little fight, the Cardinals only poured it on further after the break. Louisville began the second half on an 8-3 run, forcing Krzyzewski to call an early 30-second timeout.
A few minutes later, the packed house erupted when Williamson picked up his third foul of the contest 90 feet from the basket.
Things didn’t get any better with the Blue Devils’ leading scorer on the bench. Duke went without a field goal for nearly six minutes, as Louisville seized control with a 20-point lead.
When Williamson returned, he didn’t last long—less than 30 seconds after getting back on the floor, the 6-foot-7 forward committed his fourth foul, riling up the Cardinal faithful once more and sending Williamson right back to the pine.
That’s when the Blue Devils’ star heard a familiar voice.
“I don’t know if this is cheesy or corny, but my mom, she’s right behind the bench,” Williamson said. “She’s always been there for me, she’s the reason I’m in this situation. When I heard her voice and she said ‘It’s okay, just be you. When you get back in, make them pay.’ Everything, all my frustrations went away and I tried to make them pay.”
Although it wasn’t Williamson on his own, the freshman played a crucial role. Duke went small, putting Williamson in the middle of its 2-2-1 zone and using the tandem of Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire to pressure the Louisville backcourt.
With that switch, the Blue Devils found something—and just in time to make a miracle happen.
“That’s why I come to Duke, just to be a part of games like this,” Williamson said. “We never give up. We always look at each other and give each other that look like, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ We got each other no matter what happens, win or lose. We’re not going to go out not fighting.”