Despite the storybook setup, history would not repeat itself Saturday night.
Less than a year after the Blue Devils overcame a 23-point lead against Louisville and pulled off the largest comeback in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s four-decade tenure, Duke could not rally back from a double-digit Cardinal lead in a game that felt oddly familiar to Louisville head coach Chris Mack and his largely veteran team.
After trailing by as much as 15 in the first half, the third-ranked Blue Devils’ second-half ambush would not be enough to stun the 11th-ranked Cardinals, with Louisville upsetting Duke 79-73 in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Though they tied the game late on multiple occasions, the Blue Devils would never pull ahead. Cassius Stanley pulled up for a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 17 seconds left, but instead of completing the comeback, the shot airballed, sealing Duke's fate.
"We were down three and I felt it, but I don't know, it was a bad shot," Stanley said. "That's really one of the reasons we lost, so I take full responsibility for that.
"We were down three, we got the turnover. I should have gotten a better shot than that and that's on me."
While Stanley's miss closed the door on a Blue Devil victory, he was nearly the only reason for Saturday’s game staying competitive. Finishing with a game-high 24 points and 11 rebounds, the freshman guard flew all over the court, literally. Point guard Tre Jones found Stanley twice on the break with about 10 minutes left in the game, with the acrobatic Blue Devil taking flight for a dunk both times, finally making it a one-possession game.
A trio of Matthew Hurt free throws tied the score at 58 with 8:51 left, the first time Duke was not trailing since the opening minutes. However, the Cardinals would not break easily, scoring five consecutive points to once again go ahead.
A Jones 3-pointer off the dribble would tie the game at 63, but once again Louisville refused to let the Blue Devils (15-3, 5-2 in the ACC) pull ahead, answering with a 3-pointer of its own on the ensuing possession.
Down 42-32 out of the locker room, Duke finally awoke from its extended slumber. Tre Jones would open the half’s scoring with a lay-in—his first field goal of the night—starting an 8-2 Blue Devil run that would force Louisville to use a timeout, sending the Cameron crowd into a frenzy.
"We got hit first, but I think we responded very well," Stanley said. "But when you get hit first like that, it's a lot to get back."
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Out of the timeout, the Cardinals (15-3, 6-1) quickly stifled the excitement in Cameron, as Steven Enoch knocked down a 3-pointer out of the timeout and a Lamarr Kimble putback put Louisville back up by nine.
From the outset, Louisville dominated the interior. The Cardinals scored the game’s first 22 points in the paint, consistently getting behind the Blue Devil defense. Louisville would finish the contest with an 44-30 edge in points in the paint.
Vernon Carey Jr. struggled mightily in the first half, failing to break out while battling constant double-teams and committing four turnovers in the period. The star Blue Devil freshman did not record his first field goal until 15 minutes into the contest, with his basket cutting the once-sizable Louisville lead to just five.
In addition to Carey, the Cardinals also effectively contained Jones in the first half. The Blue Devil point guard missed all four of his field goal attempts in the opening period, including an ugly airball on an open 3-pointer from the top of the key.
"It was a physical game.... We took too long to adjust to it," Jones said. "For myself, being the leader of this team, I feel like I didn't lead the best in the first half. I let my team down in the first half, so it comes down to me."
While Carey and Jones flailed early, Stanley nearly single-handedly kept Duke within striking distance. The Los Angeles native had a team-high 14 points in the first half, consistently getting to the basket and drawing fouls.
Now nursing a two-game losing streak, the Blue Devils will have a chance to get back on track next Tuesday, with a Miami team they beat by 33 points earlier in the month coming to Durham.