GREENSBORO, N.C.—As the saying goes, it’s hard beating the same team three times in one season.
And even in a season unlike any other, the saying held true.
After losing to the Cardinals twice in the regular season, No. 10 seed Duke took down No. 7 seed Louisville 70-56 Wednesday night in the second round of the ACC tournament, keeping its conference championship and NCAA tournament hopes alive for at least another day.
Mark Williams dominated for the Blue Devils, controlling the paint from start to finish en route to a career-high 23 points and 19 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end. The Virginia native's 19 boards are the most by a freshman in ACC tournament history, surpassing Ralph Sampson's mark of 18 set in 1980.
"He's smart, and he's a hell of a worker. And he's a great kid," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Williams. "In other words, he checks the big-time talent box, but then he checks all the other boxes. So he really is a can't-miss outstanding player. It's just a matter of how outstanding he becomes and how it comes along.
"His sister [former Duke women's basketball star Elizabeth Williams] was a great player for us. And I remember when [Mark] was coming to our games, and then when we went to see him, I said, 'Holy mackerel. He's special'.... And he was special tonight. There's no question about it."
Clinging onto a narrow 30-29 lead coming out of halftime, the Blue Devils (13-11) jumped out of the gates with a 9-0 run in the first 2:19 of the second half to stretch their advantage back to double-digits. A Louisville three cut Duke’s edge to 41-34 just over a minute later, but the Cardinals (13-7) wouldn’t get any closer.
The Blue Devils maintained a safe lead for much of the second half, though that doesn’t mean Louisville didn’t make it interesting, cutting its deficit to single-digits multiple times down the stretch. But each time, Duke had a response. And more times than not, that response came from Williams, with perhaps the highlight coming with just under four minutes remaining in the contest.
With the Blue Devils up 61-51 and the shot clock winding down, Jordan Goldwire tossed up a desperation three, with Louisville preparing to pounce on the opportunity with a fast break the other way down the court. However, Williams grabbed the offensive rebound out of mid-air, took a dribble, and slammed home an emphatic dunk as the limited capacity (but decidedly pro-Duke) crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum, the Duke sideline and Williams himself roared.
"Just expressing some emotion," Williams said of the play. "We lost to that team twice in the regular season, and that feeling hurt. And to come out today and play the way that we did, it was fun to play."
At this point of the season Duke is a team playing for its life, and it acted like it to begin the contest, hounding Louisville on the defensive end of the floor. The Cardinals missed 13 of their first 15 shots, as the Blue Devils shot out to an early 11-5 edge in the first eight minutes.
From there, it was a half of runs.
A quick six-point Louisville spurt tied the contest, before a 12-0 Duke run gave the Blue Devils a commanding 27-13 edge with just 3:50 remaining in the half. Williams and sophomore forward Matthew Hurt combined for the first nine points of the run, with the latter hitting multiple closely contested mid-range jumpers and the former cleaning up nearly every miss.
But momentum can turn quickly, and what happened over the next three minutes exemplified that perfectly.
First, two Carlik Jones free throws. Then, a David Johnson three, followed by a Samuell Williamson pull-up jumper and a Jones trey. Two baskets and a couple of free throws later, and all of a 16-0 run gave the Cardinals a 29-27 edge.
Nevertheless, a Hurt three regained the lead for Duke entering the break, and the team never looked back.
"Basketball's a game of runs.... We just couldn't let it rattle us," Hurt said of Louisville's run near the end of the first half. "[At] the under-four timeout it did, but we regrouped at halftime and we just tried to play hard and tried to execute on offense."
Hurt finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting on the night.
The Blue Devils now move on to face No. 2 seed Florida State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Thursday at 6:30 p.m., looking to once again do the only thing they can: beat the opponent in front of them.
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