Saturday's matchup against Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium meant much more to Duke than just another ACC matchup. With heavy implications for ACC standings and NCAA tournament seeding, plus a chance at a much-needed bounce back win after a deflating road Clemson loss, the Blue Devils desperately needed to make a statement.
Instead, Duke fell into the same hole that has plagued it in some of its ugliest games of the season, coming out flat and letting its opponent run away with the game early.
Although the Blue Devils battled furiously to overcome a 10-point halftime deficit, No. 3 Duke's best efforts would not be enough, falling to No. 11 Louisville 79-73. Careless passes, sluggish transition defense and inferior physicality in the paint early buried the Blue Devils in a near mirror image to Tuesday's loss to the Tigers. And with the heart of conference play opening up for Duke, the Blue Devils will need to consistently come out with a fire they've been lacking through the last couple weeks of January.
"It's our energy, honestly," senior captain Jack White said. "Its been a recurring thing for us, having these slow starts. We need to fix it. We can't be dropping these games. Every game, especially now in conference, counts and we can't afford to make that kind of mistake against anyone in the conference. We need to find a way to come out and talk and execute our game plan."
When Duke won the opening tip, all seemed well. Vernon Carey Jr. rejected a Jordan Nwora layup attempt and Matthew Hurt followed it up with an in-rhythm three to get a high-energy Cameron crowd rocking. But just as the Blue Devils looked to establish an offensive rhythm, Duke's normally disciplined play came crashing down.
On four early possessions, Duke looked to feed Carey for some instant offense, only for a quick double team to close in and rip the ball right out of his hands. Cassius Stanley, who put the Blue Devils on his back for 24 points through the night, also struggled to get in rhythm to start, committing a pair of turnovers on some of his signature iso drives.
Even Tre Jones, Duke's level-headed floor general, couldn't seem to find much of a spark as even simple ball movement around the perimeter led to Louisville takeaways.
Unfortunately for Duke, the Cardinals took full advantage of the Blue Devils' struggles, turning poor play into easy points.
Every time Duke coughed up the ball, Louisville broke into a dead sprint to take advantage of outnumbering the Blue Devils in transition, making the most of their opponents' blown opportunities. With about six minutes left in the first half, the Cardinals outscored Duke 22-0 in the paint, with many of those points coming in transition.
The catalyst for Louisville's early start was David Johnson, who came off the bench for 17 points and four assists in the first half. Although all eyes were on the Cardinals' Nwora and Steven Enoch, a pair of high-scoring bigs, Johnson's ability to capitalize on Duke's chaotic start ended up putting the Blue Devils in a hole that was too big to claw out of.
"We weren't strong enough on the ball," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They had numerically advantaged fast breaks, and that hurt us. They made adjustments based on how we were guarding [Nwora], and that allowed them to make shots. However, if we weren't turning the ball over, that wouldn't allow them to make 44 points in the paint.
"[Johnson] was terrific in the first half. He's a big, attacking guard.... He had 17 in the first half, and some of those were on fast breaks. He was outstanding, no question."
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The real sting of Saturday's loss comes from how agonizingly close Duke came to pulling out a win. The Blue Devils managed to tie the game twice in the second half, but ultimately didn't have the steam to break through for a lead. One can't help but wonder that if the Blue Devils didn't put themselves in a 15-point hole in the opening 10 minutes, they would have been the ones to walk out of Cameron with a key ACC win.
"We were scrambling," White said. "It's little things. We're right there. We just need to learn from this and move on. Next one is Tuesday at home against Miami, and we need to move forward. As much as this one hurts we need to put this one behind us and move on."