LOUISVILLE, Ky.—“I don’t coach losers. I’m going to coach winners.”
Those were the words from Coach K to his team midway through that second half—at least according to Zion Williamson.
Duke had to be the loser Tuesday night. It looked complacent. It looked lazy. It looked like a team that was satisfied with what it had accomplished thus far—21 wins in 23 games, including a season sweep of Virginia.
Had the Blue Devils lost a game at Louisville, so what? Sure, it would’ve been embarrassing and maybe even shocking, dropping a game by double digits. But Duke probably would’ve been excused. It would have remained the overwhelming favorite to cut down the net in Minneapolis.
A road loss to a ranked opponent? No big deal.
If you turned the TV off when the Blue Devils trailed by 23 with 9:55 to play, don’t blame yourself.
But just know that you missed the most improbable of comebacks, a game that will be remembered—especially if Duke does end up on that stage at U.S. Bank Stadium in a little less than two months.
When asked what transpired, Cam Reddish had few words.
And how about when asked again?
From Reddish to R.J. Barrett to even head coach Mike Krzyzewski, nobody was quite sure what they were just a part of. The only larger comeback in Blue Devil history took place nearly 70 years ago.
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“It’s a crazy game,” Krzyzewski said. “Humans beings are crazy.”
Still, Coach K had to stretch the truth a bit to help make the moment happen in a timeout with about 11 minutes left.
“At West Point, that was one of the things I learned as a cadet: Even when you don’t feel like it’s going to go, your men better not see that in you, and as a result, you can speak into action sometimes,” he added. “I was hoping that we wouldn’t lose by 35. I’m not kidding.
“Then, once that press was going, I said, ‘We’ve got a chance here. We can get it.’ At that point, I think I may have been telling a lie. But as a cadet, it would’ve been social honor. It was something that I needed to do.”
When it comes to Duke, "moment" can be an overused word. It’s as omnipresent as any in the Krzyzewski vernacular. Every team, however, has its moment.
A year ago, the Blue Devils stormed back to take out North Carolina at home. The year before that, it was four wins in four days in Brooklyn to capture the ACC championship. In 2015-16, Duke pulled off a short-handed win in Chapel Hill, and during the national championship season four years back, it was Tyus Jones’ dagger triple at Virginia.
This was that moment for the 2018-19 Blue Devils. Etch it in stone, full stop.
That’s not to say there aren’t more big games to come. The Tar Heels will visit Cameron Indoor in a week, and Duke will make its trip down Tobacco Road in less than a month. There are still two postseason tournaments and as many as 16 contests left to play.
It’s hard to watch these Blue Devils, though, and not think about what lies ahead. Williamson, among others, has repeatedly said it: This team is here for a national title. Whether that sixth banner ultimately comes to fruition and rises to the rafters of Cameron remains to be seen.
By the time clock hits all zeroes late Tuesday night, the scoreboard atop the KFC Yum! Center read like this: Devils 71, Cards 69.
The sold-out crowd exited in a state of stunned silence.
Yet an hour and change later, Duke was still there. So too were a couple hundred Blue Devil fans, clamoring for autographs from both Barrett and Williamson.
That’s not normal. Then again, nor is this team.