Anatomy of a comeback: How Duke pulled off historic rally to beat Louisville

The faces in the Yum Center crowd told the surreal tale Tuesday night. Boisterous joy gradually gave way to mild concern, then growing restlessness, then full-on nausea and anguish.

On the court, the players’ faces were similarly revealing. Confidence steadily leaked away, replaced by caution, then by panic and fear. Nobody wanted the ball. Nobody wanted to shoot the ball. Nobody knew how to stop the possession-by-possession disaster from unfolding.

Sixteenth-ranked Louisville really was going to blow a sure thing against No. 2 Duke. A 23-point lead really was going to turn into a two-point loss in less than 9½ minutes. A historic collapse really was taking place in real time.

How did it happen? This is the anatomy of Mike Krzyzewski’s biggest comeback — and Louisville’s epic collapse.

It started with a TV timeout at the 11:13 mark, with the score 56-36. That’s when Krzyzewski memorably told his team, “We’re going to win.” That’s also when he decided — what the hell, nothing else was working — to try a 2-2-1 full-court press that fell back into a 2-3 zone in the half court.

And at the 9:41 mark, K made two crucial personnel moves: He brought star Zion Williamson off the bench with four fouls, and he inserted little-used guard Jordan Goldwire to help amp up the press.

They were game-saving decisions. Though they took a while to take effect.

Duke’s Cam Reddish celebrates the Blue Devils’ win over Louisville on Tuesday. (AP)
Duke’s Cam Reddish celebrates the Blue Devils’ win over Louisville on Tuesday. (AP)

After pushing the lead to 59-36 with 9:55 remaining, and keeping that lead until 9:04 remained, the Cardinals would have been better off committing a series of 30-second shot-clock violations than doing what they did. Namely, playing too quickly.

Basically, Louisville pulled an Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. With the game all but locked up, the Cardinals disregarded the clock and kept playing at an unnecessarily fast pace.

“I thought there were a few times where we took quick shots,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Although they may have been open shots, it didn’t allow us to get where we needed to get defensively in transition to get matched up and make it a five-on-five game.”

That had actually started a few possessions before the Duke rally commenced, when the game began to resemble the slipshod run-and-gun of a summer AAU consolation-bracket run. Guards Darius Perry and Ryan McMahon and forward Jordan Nwora launched rushed 3-pointers that missed. Then, when the comeback was on, Louisville attempted one field goal five seconds into the shot clock, then another one four seconds into the clock, and a third 17 seconds into the clock.

One of those was launched by 6-foot-11 center Malik Williams, a 32 percent 3-point shooter. Up 20 with 7:55 remaining, it didn’t seem like a big deal. A few minutes later, it certainly did.

“A shot with 26, 25 seconds on the shot clock from your center from three, you can probably get that look really any time,” Mack said.

When Louisville wasn’t shooting too quickly, it was turning the ball over — nine times in the final 8:06. Problems handling the pressure led to Mack calling a timeout with 6:09 left, and the lead down to 14. Then the Cardinals called another timeout 11 seconds later to avoid a turnover. At the 3:32 mark, with the lead at five, Mack took his last timeout.

Going the final 212 seconds without a timeout only added to the Louisville stress.

Turnovers had been a problem for the Cardinals, who coughed it up 23 times in a loss Saturday to Florida State — a game in which they had a 10-point lead with less than nine minutes left. That’s why Krzyzewski had his team work on the 2-2-1 leading up to this game. He saw an opponent susceptible to pressure.

“We don’t do it very much, but we actually practiced it for this game,” Krzyzewski said. “So we felt we could do it.”

Coach K kept Goldwire on the floor for the entire final 9:41, and he delivered a pair of steals and a pair of assists while helping reduce Louisville’s press offense to Jell-O. Duke’s long and athletic lineup particularly heated up Louisville point guard Christen Cunningham, who had 12 assists but also six turnovers.

Even when Louisville got the ball past midcourt and got into their offense, the Cardinals were either too careless or too cautious passing. They often got the ball into the middle of the Duke 2-3 zone, but then failed to produce (or even take) open shots.

As Duke crept closer, possession by possession, you could almost see the decision-making burden grow on the shoulders of the Cards.

“I think our spacing was pretty good,” Mack said. “We were just tentative. Every pass was like they wanted to get to their teammate, and that tentativeness becomes a negative when you [are competing against] such a great anticipating team.”

And Duke finally started making some shots, especially from the perimeter. In the first half, the Devils were 3-15 from 3-point range — not completely atypical for a team that ranks 295th nationally in 3-point accuracy. Cam Reddish — “Killer Cam,” in the words of star Zion Williamson — splashed all four of his threes during the comeback.

“Cam hit dagger shots,” Krzyzewski said.

In the final seconds, tied at 69, Williamson gave up the ball to Reddish for the opportunity for the game-winning dagger. Reddish drove into the paint and took a leap into a jump stop, just as McMahon rushed into his path. There was a collision, and a whistle.

The officials called the play a charge with 14 seconds left, which would have given Louisville the chance to win. But they also correctly went to the replay monitor to review whether McMahon had established position outside the restricted arc under the rim. As it turned out, the guard’s right heel was on the line — a few inches away from the potential game-winning play.

Reddish made both free throws. Louisville had a final possession, and with two seconds remaining Cunningham ended his 0-for-4 shooting night with a misfire from the lane. Williamson, the 285-pound tower of power, ripped the rebound away from a couple Cardinals, and the epic comeback/collapse was complete.

“This,” Krzyzewski said, “is a crazy night.”

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