There was a timeout Tuesday night, with 11 minutes and 13 seconds left in the damnedest college basketball game of the season, and Mike Krzyzewski decided it was time to fib to his Duke Blue Devils.
“We’re going to win,” he said.
This was bald-faced deceit. The coach admitted it later. “At that point,” he said, “I may have been telling them a lie.”
At that point, Krzyzewski’s No. 2-ranked team was being slapped silly by Louisville, down 20 — on its way to down 23 with 9:55 remaining. The Blue Devils were all but done, not just beaten but embarrassed, with star player Zion Williamson on the bench with four fouls. A blackout crowd of 22,046 was going insane. Duke finally looked like the baby-faced team it is — bewildered and discombobulated and suffering a letdown after the huge victory at Virginia on Saturday.
“I was hoping we wouldn’t lose by 35,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not kidding.”
But that’s not what he told his team. And darned if the Dukies didn’t fall for K’s chicanery.
“You’re looking at Coach K, the greatest coach of all time,” said the magnificent Williamson, “and he’s telling you you’re going to win.”
And so they believed. And so they won, 71-69. And now you wonder if there is anything this special, freshman-laden bunch cannot do.
It was an absolute stunner, a brilliant comeback aided by a ghastly collapse, a splurge of Cardinals turnovers provoking mounting horror in an arena that had been so joyous all night. And Louisville now owns the worst giveaway for the second straight season (last year the Cardinals blew a four-point lead with a single second to play against Virginia).
It was so improbable that it made history.
According to the NCAA, this was the latest any team has ever come back from 23 down, doing it in less than half of a half. This also was the biggest comeback in Krzyzewski’s career, and he’s won more games than anyone in Division I men’s history. He’s seen some stuff, but never anything like this.
“Crazy,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s a crazy game. Human beings are crazy. … We were spectacular for 9½ minutes, and it was just good enough.”
On the verge of being run out of the building and into the cold Kentucky night, Duke dusted off a 2-2-1 press — in a karmic twist, the very pressure defense Denny Crum employed to help win two national titles at Louisville, including the 1986 championship game against the Blue Devils. Duke used that press to melt the Cardinals into a puddle, forcing nine turnovers in the final 8:06.
“Their hands were everywhere,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said.
On the occasions when Louisville navigated that press and got into its offense, the Cards missed nine of their final 11 shots. Between that and the turnovers, it was like watching a building implode in slow motion.
While Louisville was carelessly frittering away possessions early in the Duke comeback, and then nervously frittering them away late, the Blue Devils were finding unlikely heroes. Backup big man Javin DeLaurier grabbed six rebounds and had two steals, keying the increased intensity. Sophomore guard Jordan Goldwire, a complete afterthought in the Duke rotation, led the pressure defense with a pair of steals, a pair of assists and a pair of rebounds — and might have earned himself more playing time going forward.
And then there were those four fabulous Duke freshmen.
Point guard Tre Jones was terrible most of the night but very effective in the press, making timely steals and scoring key baskets while playing the full 40 minutes. R.J. Barrett didn’t have a great game, but he scored and grabbed rebounds and made key passes late. Cam Reddish, the closest thing Duke has to a reliable 3-point shooter, made all four of his threes during the comeback and ultimately hit the winning free throws with 14 seconds remaining.
“Killer Cam,” said Williamson.
And of course there was Zion, the 285-pound freak who has taken the college game by storm. His 27 points, 13 rebounds and three steals only tell part of the story. His competitive zeal and focused maturity under pressure tell more.
Even Coach K didn’t think Duke could pull off historic second-half comeback against Louisville