LOUISVILLE, Ky.—With a sizable, roaring crowd, back-and-forth action and big time moments, ACC basketball in Louisville truly felt like something close to normal in the sport. Even if Duke fighting for its NCAA tournament life isn’t close to that.
In what was a closely contested battle from the opening tip, Duke ultimately fell late in its third consecutive ACC loss 70-65 to Louisville Saturday afternoon in the KFC Yum! Center. Neither team held a lead larger than six points throughout the entire game.
With just over a minute left in the game, Carlik Jones finished a contested drive to put Louisville up 66-65, a lead the Cardinals wouldn’t relinquish. Duke had a chance to climb back on top with 30 seconds to play, but Joey Baker couldn’t connect on an open 3-point attempt.
“I feel so bad for Joey because he’s worked so hard," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You’re down by one and he’s got the shot that he’s dreamed of and worked hard for. And the thing is in and out. The basketball gods, if they’re good to him, then we would have benefited.”
DJ Steward also took a great look from deep to tie the game, but it just wouldn’t go down for Duke, and Louisville hit both free throws to ice the game.
“Out of probably the last five shots we took, three of them were wide open threes, and two of them came from our best two shooters in Joey and DJ," sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. said. "So we’re living with that outcome every time. It was tough that the balls didn’t go in, but we’re going to go right back to it if it’s open again.”
Up by one with less than two minutes to play, disaster struck for the Blue Devils as Matthew Hurt picked up his fifth foul on a Jones drive, who would make a pair of free throws to give the Cardinals a 64-63 edge.
Hurt once again paced Duke with four made 3-pointers for 24 total points, 15 of which came in the first half. On the other end, Louisville’s backcourt proved an incredibly difficult challenge to defend as Jones and David Johnson posted 24 and 12 points, respectively, to lead the Cardinals.
“Carlik is a really good player," Moore said. "He came from Radford and is one of the best graduate transfers in the country. He went out there and showed us that he’s been in tough games, he’s been in tough situations, and he’s good enough to make those plays.”
While Louisville led for much of the second half, Duke seemed to be taking control around the under-eight TV timeout. Jordan Goldwire and Steward connected on triples from the top of the key, and a pair of free throws from Hurt gave Duke an 59-57 lead with just over six minutes to play in the contest. Two Jones free throws quickly tied it up, however, leading to a back-and-forth affair down the stretch.
With Krzyzewski going to a zone defense for a second straight game, Louisville looked for shots beyond the arc to begin the contest. Things looked grim for Duke in the early going, as the Cardinals connected on three straight 3-pointers to open a quick 10-5 lead.
However, Hurt, Moore and Baker also provided a spark from deep to keep the visitors in the game.
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In what has been an unusual year of ACC basketball, the closing minutes of the first frame really began to resemble the high-level, exciting play many expect from this conference. The Cardinals looked to distance themselves with seven straight points before the third media timeout, but Duke answered emphatically with an 11-4 run behind a trio of buckets from Hurt.
“You’re not going to penetrate far against [Louisville], but a little bit and get some type of help," Krzyzewski said. "And then when you kick you might have an opening. I thought we got that.”
Before anyone on Denny Crum Court could blink, however, Louisville stormed back to take a 36-33 lead into the locker room. That spelled bad news for the Blue Devils, who came into the game 1-4 when trailing at halftime.
As the second half progressed, the Blue Devils made a quick transition from their zone defense to man-to-man. But Louisville found comfort against this familiar look and, with just under 14 minutes left, took its largest lead of the game at the time with a 50-44 edge. With the Cardinals seemingly on the brink of breaking open the game, Steward breathed life back into Duke, turning a near turnover into an old fashioned 3-point play.
“If we have a tall lineup, our length could affect their offense," Hurt said on utilizing the zone defense. "I think covering the middle of the zone was really killing us. Someone would flash in from the perimeter and they would just play-make from there. So I think we just have to learn from it and watch the film.”
After completing this three-game road trip, the Blue Devils will finally get another chance to create some much-needed momentum with two home games against Georgia Tech and No. 20 Clemson. In a rare down year for Duke, each game is beginning to have monumental implications on a potential NCAA tournament berth.