LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tennis legend Roger Federer’s face. Zion Williamson’s mother. A Duke sub few would recognize sitting on the edge of his seat. Mike Krzyzewski telling a fib to his team. Oh, and nine Louisville turnovers in 10 minutes.
Funny, all the things that went into one of the most confounding games of the season Tuesday night. The biggest comeback in the Age of Krzyzewski at Duke, and we’re talking 39 years.
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"It’s a crazy game. Human beings are crazy," he would say afterward.
"It’s sports. Adversity is a fact of life, man. You’re talking to a guy that had three ACL tears in college," Louisville coach Chris Mack would say afterward.
"I’m not as shocked as everybody else but this moment is unbelievable," Williamson, one of the rally ringleaders, would say afterward.
When it was over the final count was up there on the KFC Yum! Center scoreboard almost taunting a stunned home crowd and a shattered home team.
Duke 71, Louisville 69.
And there was only one question to ask.
How does a team leading by 23 points with only 10 minutes to go, and the joyous roar of its crowd like the wind in its sails, and the opponent looking beaten in more ways than there are consonants in Krzyzewski’s name . . . how does that team lose?
Or put another way, how does a team hit only 28 percent of its first 50 shots, and go the first 11 minutes of the second half with one field goal, with its best player trying to somehow sneak through the last 12 minutes with four fouls … how does that team win?
Maybe that’s what the Cardinal fans — who had been thunderous and hopeful — were wondering as they slipped away into the night, leaving so quietly one of the ushers by the door said, "I think everybody is shocked."
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But there is something special about this Duke team, and we should know it now more than ever. Even more than Saturday, when the Blue Devils couldn’t miss, and mowed down Virginia. This time, they missed. A lot. And still, they won. They were down 23 points with 10 minutes left and couldn’t hit the nearby Ohio River from the I-65 bridge, and still they won. They were outrun, outplayed, outscored and out-competed for 30 minutes, and still they won.
How often do you see a game like that?
"Never," Williamson said. "That’s why I came to Duke, to be a part of games like this."
But there has never been a game like this. Not under Krzyzewski. It’s the second biggest comeback in Duke history.
To review the timeline . . .
At halftime, Louisville led 38-29 and the Blue Devils had left their hot shooting back in Virginia. They had made eight of their first nine 3s in thumping the Cavaliers. They missed 12-of-15 in the first half Tuesday, and their entire game struggled.
"Panic isn’t the right word, but we lost confidence and we just looked bad,” Krzyzewski said. “I told my team, 'You’re not losers, but you’re playing like losers.'"
With 12:14 to go in the game, Williamson picked up his fourth foul. And weren’t the Louisville fans happy campers as he trudged toward the bench.
“The whole crowd stood up cheering,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, it was very frustrating. I don’t know if this is cheesy or corny, but my mom sits right behind the bench. She’s always been there for me. When I hear her voice, she says, 'It’s ok, just be you. When you get back in, make them pay.' All my frustrations went away and I tried to make them pay.”
With 11:13 left game, Duke had one field goal in the second half and was down 20. In a huddle during a timeout, Krzyzewski looked at his struggling players and declared . . . they would win. He seemed like he meant it. As Williamson mentioned, "Coach K said whenever we need confidence, just look at him."
Krzyzewski said he learned something during his West Point days; never let the troops know if you don’t think it’ll turn out all right in the end. And he learned the value of having a confident look from someone else.
“I had Roger Federer on my show last week and I talked about his strong face. In order to be really good you have to have a strong face and strong mannerisms, even if you don’t feel strong.
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“I did think we could play better. I was hoping that we wouldn’t lose by 35. I’m not kidding. We could have. So you’re talking positive, but I don’t know (about) belief . . . At that point I think I may have been telling a lie."
At 9:41, with the spread 59-36, he looked down the bench to sophomore guard Jordan Goldwire, who was averaging only 7.9 minutes and 0.7 points a game. Krzyzewski had a last-ditch idea; extend the defense to a 2-2-1 zone and apply pressure. He needed a quick body to help make it work.
"He had the best look of anybody on the bench," Krzyzewski said. "He was like sitting on the edge of his seat, wanting to get in."
Another Blue Devil came into the game then, too. Williamson, eager to heed mom’s advice.
And then everything changed. In the next 9-plus minutes, Louisville would take 10 shots, and miss eight of them. The Cardinals would also commit nine turnovers. The Duke defense that produced but one steal the first half had 11 in the second. The Blue Devils went sweeping past, winning on two Cam Reddish free throws with 14 seconds left.
Just before that possession, the announcer had pleaded to the fans, "We need you sooooo loud right now." And they were. It didn’t matter.
What happened out there?
Reddish: "Just play by play, get stops, get good shots. That’s really what it was."
Krzyzewski: "(The Cardinals) were looking where our guys were, and not attacking them."
Williamson: "I’m not going to say scared. I think they started playing a little complacent."
And Duke — especially Reddish and Williamson — started making shots, acting as if they knew it would happen all along.
"Coach K has this thing he tells me before every game — too many hours," Williamson said. "If you add all the hours from when we started playing basketball as a kid to now, that’s a lot of hours, that’s a lot of muscle memory. The shot might not be going in but it’s going to go in eventually."
Trying to explain the chaotic evening, Krzyzewski finally came upon the proper summation.
"I think that’s what happened. Who the hell knows?"
"We were spectacular for 9 ½ minutes. It was just good enough to make do," Krzyzewski said. "I feel bad for (Louisville), because they were so damn good.
"They probably were more deserving of winning."
But Duke won. That makes the Blue Devils 7-1 against ranked opponents, three of them true road games.
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“February is a crazy month because it’s a long haul before March, and everybody is hungry, they’re trying to make their marks,” Krzyzewski said. “These kids can already feel like they’ve made a mark. And so you’re playing against somebody that can be hungrier than you. Our thing going into the game was play harder than them, and we weren’t able to do that. So that’s a lesson for our guys.”
And here’s a lesson for the rest of us: The Duke Blue Devils are looking harder to beat as they go along.