With six seconds left on the shot clock and one on the game clock, a Louisville layup ricocheted off the backboard and a cluster of hands, reaching upward like zombies bursting through graveyard dirt, stretched to find the ball.
Darius Perry found it first, and his second-chance tip-in dropped through the net at the buzzer to give Louisville an improbable 38-29 halftime lead over the visiting Duke.
The Cardinals would stretch the lead to as many as 23 points in the second half before the Blue Devils forced a reckoning, using free throws and Louisville turnovers to complete a late comeback and snatch a 71-69 victory Tuesday night at the KFC Yum Center. The ESPN broadcast said it was the largest second-half comeback Duke had completed in Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure as coach.
Louisville, ranked No. 20 in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll, suffered its third straight loss to No. 2 Duke and dropped to 5-4 against ranked teams this season. It was only the second time the Cardinals have lost back-to-back games this season, this one following an overtime defeat at Florida State on Saturday.
“As tough as it was on Saturday to swallow it, tougher,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “I’m really proud of my team. They competed their tails off. We played as hard as we’ve played all year. We dominated the best team in the country for 30-something minutes and we have to figure out how to close games.”
The Cards should have had the game in hand, but Duke took advantage of Louisville’s sloppy play and scored 15 points off turnovers in the second half to tie the game 69-69 with one minute to go.
On the next Duke offensive possession Ryan McMahon seemed to absorb a charge, but officials awarded two free throws to Cam Reddish, who converted. Louisville’s last-ditch jumper caught iron and Zion Williamson came down with the rebound to stun the Cardinals on their home court.
Both teams came up empty on the game’s first nine possessions before Reddish opened the scoring with a mid-range jumper at the 17:33 mark.
“It was our game to win and we just gave it away,” said Louisville forward Jordan Nwora.
Despite a couple of live-ball turnovers and missed defensive rebounds, Louisville played tough and it remained a one-possession game through the first 10 minutes.
Louisville opened 7 of 24 from the field but kept pace with Duke on the glass and limited the Blue Devils at the 3-point line.
Louisville hit four of its final five shots, including a tip-in at the buzzer by Perry, to take a nine-point lead into the break shooting a 44-percent clip.
Despite an uptick in foul calls, the advantage ballooned to 17 points five minutes into the second half and then to 20 a few minutes later, Duke’s largest deficit of the season.
The Blue Devils showed some signs of life in the final five minutes and went 16 of 22 from the foul line and forced 13 turnovers in the second half as part of the late rally.
“They probably were more deserving of winning, but the last 10 mins we were spectacular,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Nwora led Louisville with 23 points and 12 rebounds, followed by Dwayne Sutton with 15 points. Williamson led Duke with 27 points. Reddish (22 points) and R.J. Barrett (13 points) scored 21 of their combined 35 points in the second half.
Here are some takeaways from the game:
Defense paves the way at first
The Cards mixed in a bit of zone defense to keep the Blue Devils out of the lane and force six of their first 13 shots from beyond the arc. Although some early defensive lapses in transition led to easy paint buckets for Reddish and Williamson at times overpowered Nwora and Sutton, Louisville didn’t let Duke get too comfortable.
Duke shot just 36 percent in the opening half and took 15 of their 33 shots from behind the 3-point line. When the Blue Devils did get into the paint, the Cards boxed out for rebounds and were careful to avoid unnecessary fouling.
Williamson picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes left in the game and the Blue Devils down 54-36. Duke finished the night shooting 36 percent overall despite a big night at the foul line.
Steven Enoch came off the bench for his 13th double-figure scoring performance of the season and was the biggest factor in Louisville winning the paint battle, 30-28.
After a 1-of-9 start from beyond the arc, Louisville then made its next three attempts and finished 4 of 12 at the half, and Enoch helped with that, too. The Cards’ backup big man drained two open 3-pointers to put Louisville up 28-23, its largest lead of the first half at that point.
By halftime, Enoch had 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting. He finished with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
Transition game strong
The Cards turned the tables on the nation’s best stealing team and nabbed four first-half steals. Louisville kept Duke from scoring on run-outs and had a 10-2 advantage in fast-break points, including a massive two-handed slam from Nwora with five minutes left.
Many of the plays were off steals near the top of the key, but some were coast-to-coast looks where Sutton or Fore grabbed a defensive rebound and took off, sensing an opportunity to catch the Blue Devils on their heels.
Louisville slipped in crunch time with some careless passes that led to Duke fast breaks and ended up with only a 12-10 fast break advantage.
Role players step up
Perry, who was 1 for 3 over his last three games, put together his best performance in months Tuesday. The sophomore didn’t score in the second half but had six points in the first.
Point guard Christen Cunningham didn’t score but facilitated the offense with a season-high 12 assists. Chris Mack had stressed earlier in the week that Louisville needed to learn how to function without putting the ball in Cunningham’s hands the majority of the game, so it was a sign of growth that the guard still affected the game but wasn’t relied on to score.