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  • Duke's come-from-behind victory over Louisville proved it can win even when opposing teams are playing their best. It'll take a perfect 40 minutes just to have a shot at beating the Blue Devils.
By Eric Single
February 13, 2019

The feeling in the KFC Yum! Center approximated the chilling clarity the early victims in horror movies find when they empty their weapon into the gut of the villain, only to watch it continue its advance and realize they're in the presence of something from another realm.

And yes, morbid imagery is the only option on a night in which RJ Barrett's line that Duke likes to wear black on the road because "it's [the other team's] funeral" had set the tone for a reckoning. Just three days after Barrett let that bit of bulletin board material slip in his on-court interview following an impressive 81–71 win over Virginia in Charlottesville, the Blue Devils fell behind—way behind—an inspired Louisville team playing in front of a raucous crowd, trailing by 23 points with 9:58 to play. What happened next would have been the most improbable finish of the season if it wasn't led by the best player and best coach in college basketball.

The former, Zion Williamson, let a national audience in on what the latter, Mike Krzyzewski, told his Duke team in a pivotal second-half huddle: "He said he doesn't coach losers, he only coaches winners. He said go out there and play hard, and he can coach us to a win."

Easy enough. Duke gave the rest of college basketball hope that it was capable of all-systems failure, and then it snuffed out that hope and looked as unkillable as ever in a 71–69 win sealed by two Cam Reddish free throws and the last of a string of defensive stands. 

From the 7:40 mark of the second half on, Duke outscored Louisville 35–10 on its home floor, reducing a top-25 team that couldn't miss for 30 minutes into a pile of nerves and ill-timed black-and-red jerseys. Williamson produced 13 of his game-high 27 points, five of his 12 rebounds, all three of his steals and his lone block after he picked up his fourth foul of the game with 12:14 left. Reddish drained two soaring three-pointers, one from each wing, to help the walls close in late. Point guard Tre Jones helmed a 2-1-2 press that forced Louisville's ballhandlers, especially senior guards Khwan Fore and Christen Cunningham, to make countless terrible decisions that sucked the air out of the building. Backup point guard Jordan Goldwire matched Jones with two huge steals of his own and provided the perfect on-ball defense on the Cardinals' final possession that came away empty.

WOO: Virginia's Win at UNC Stands in Duke's Ever-Looming Shadow

He deserved his postgame shoutout from Williamson, but if Goldwire is making game-altering plays, the Blue Devils have reached a new level of inevitability. They spotted Louisville a 12-point lead early in the second half—which marked the biggest deficit Duke has faced all year ... until it ballooned to 23—only to rip off the largest comeback in Krzyzewski's tenure at Duke and the second-largest comeback in program history. Barrett, the team's leading scorer this year, matched his season-low total with 13 points. The bench, which hasn't had to play cheerleader in this capacity all season, was locked in from the moment the margin dropped back below 20. The No. 2 team in the country was pushed out of its comfort zone in every way and it still didn't change the outcome.

So now what? Louisville's second-half collapse leaves Gonzaga's last-second win in the Maui Invitational final and Syracuse's overtime escape as the only two known blueprints for beating this Duke team, and neither are viable options for most teams below college basketball elite tier. The Cardinals did their best imitation of Gonzaga's efficient shooting display and ruthless ball pursuit on defense, but they could only keep it up for 30 minutes. And no one will get as lucky as Syracuse did when Jones was lost to injury in the opening minutes last month in Durham. (No one should want to, either.)

A graphic shown on the ESPN broadcast in the second half claimed that, according to the Basketball Power Index, Duke's six-game stretch that started with Saturday's win at Virginia and ends on Feb. 26 at Virginia Tech is the toughest single stretch faced by any team in the country this season. The timing of that graphic, which appeared with the Blue Devils stumbling toward a blowout loss, made it seem like an excuse. Now the upcoming gantlet feels like the only way to learn anything worthwhile about this team after Tuesday night showed a glimpse of how it responds to the most extreme adversity. Tennessee remains the nominal No. 1 team in the country and will be a deserved tournament favorite, but Peak Duke is the ghost the rest of college basketball will be chasing throughout March.

The Blue Devils will wake up Wednesday morning a week away from their first game of the year against North Carolina, but in the past four days they have taken emotion out of the equation and simplified the stakes for every game from here until the Final Four in Minneapolis. If you can be perfect for 40 minutes, you have a shot. If you can't, you were dead before the cameras came on.

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