Even Coach K didn't think Duke could pull off historic second-half comeback against Louisville

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/147096/" data-ylk="slk:Zion Williamson">Zion Williamson</a> goes up for a layup against Louisville on Tuesday in the YUM Center. (AP)
Zion Williamson goes up for a layup against Louisville on Tuesday in the YUM Center. (AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — 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.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

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 to win in regulation, 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.

Zion Williamson didn’t do much dunking on Tuesday but the Blue Devils still won. (AP)
Zion Williamson didn’t do much dunking on Tuesday but the Blue Devils still won. (AP)

Zion is an emotional guy, just 18½ years old, and everything seemed to be collapsing on top of him with 12:14 left in the game and Duke being routed. Williamson had just picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench with the Yum Center crowd howling in delight.

“I’m not going to lie, I was very frustrated,” Williamson said. “I don’t know if this is cheesy or corny, but when I was on the bench I heard my mom in the stands. She said, ‘It’s OK. Be you. When you get back in, make them pay.’ ”

He made Louisville pay dearly. Williamson returned at the 9:41 mark and proceeded to: block a shot, grab a defensive rebound, grab an offensive rebound, make one of two free throws, make a jump shot while being fouled, make the free throw, make a steal, make two more free throws, make another steal, make two more free throws, grab a defensive rebound, score another and-one field goal, make the free throw, make yet another steal, and grab the final rebound of the game to secure the win. That’s 11 points, four rebounds, three steals and a block in 9:41, when his team absolutely needed all of it.

But there was one other play Williamson made that underscores his basketball IQ and lack of ego.

On Duke’s final possession, when it took the lead for the first time since 21-20, Jones put the ball in Zion’s huge hands on the wing with the clock draining. Williamson faced up with Louisville center Malik Williams on him, a mismatch that seemingly would lead to a drive to the basket. Instead, after probing for a couple of seconds, Williamson turned and passed to Reddish for a drive to the basket that resulted in the winning free throws.

The guy who is the runaway favorite for national player of the year honors oftentimes would force that play himself. Williamson sized up the situation and deferred instead.

“They were closing on me,” he said. “So I just said, ‘I’m going to kick it to Cam.’ In that situation, you’ve got to find a better shot.”

When it was over, the Duke celebration was raucous amid the stricken arena. Players threw their bodies into one another before bounding off to the locker room. Williamson was the last one on the court, doing the postgame ESPN interview, then he bounced toward the large number of Duke fans clustered by the tunnel leading off the arena floor.

The big kid slapped hands with blue-clad fans, then abruptly and sweetly stopped to grant a picture with a tiny fan. It was 6-year-old Madelyn Fisher, dressed in Duke gear just like her dad, Brian. They had driven up from Bowling Green, Kentucky, about 100 miles away, to see the team Brian Fisher grew up rooting for. They got a night they’ll never forget.

From there, Zion skipped the final steps to the locker room and ran inside, thrilled to join the cacophony within. He turned the wrong way at first — the way the entire Duke team did Tuesday night — then corrected course and bolted back the other direction toward his teammates.

The voices boomed even louder upon his arrival, and the chants began. A remarkable season, featuring a 118-point debut domination of Kentucky and a sweep of Virginia and 18 other wins, had somehow reached a new crescendo. No telling what these crazy Duke kids will come up with next.

More from Yahoo Sports:

Belichick changed his boat’s name to reflect SB win
22-year-old son of NFL head coach is arrested
Panthers deal ‘proves’ NFL collusion, Eric Reid says
Did Peyton Manning unknowingly help the Pats?

What to Read Next