CRAWFORD | Pitino revels in his first trip to Duke, but not in t - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Pitino revels in his first trip to Duke, but not in the 72-65 loss

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Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville's Rick Pitino before Monday night's contest. AP photo. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville's Rick Pitino before Monday night's contest. AP photo.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For Rick Pitino, I know, this game had been circled on the calendar for a long time. We talked about it shortly after Louisville’s program was accepted into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

One of the things he looked forward to was taking a team into Cameron Indoor Stadium. He’s a longtime Mike Krzyzewski fan. You become linked when you coach in a game like Kentucky played against Duke in 1992, which ended in Christian Laettner's famous shot. Then they met again in the Elite Eight in 2013, and there were more memories.

To him, Pitino told me many times, “Coach K is our John Wooden.”

But in a 40-year coaching career, he had never been in this iconic venue. Until Monday night.

I don’t think Pitino ever dreamed the visit would go down quite like this, with his team having received a self-imposed postseason ban. Monday night’s game against Duke had little significance beyond making memories — and gaining valuable experience. Duke won the game 72-65, outscoring the Cardinals 15-7 after the visitors went ahead by one with 6:12 to play (11 of those Duke points came from the free-throw line).

“We played great tonight,” Pitino said. “It’s a tough atmosphere to get a win. They played with everything they had to try to get a win. We just made some crucial mistakes with missed layups at the end, and missing free throws, but they made them.”

The Cardinals had their moments. Like all visiting teams, they came into Cameron for the shootaround and took pictures of the place. I was there when Bellarmine visited a few years back, it was no different. (I wasn’t there last night. Credential issues. Next time you tell me you don’t have room, Duke, I hope not to see a bunch of empty seats on press row. Someday, I hope to establish with schools that though I work for TV, I am a writer. I’m no Red Smith, but I can generally put out something worthwhile, and I’ve always had great respect for Duke.)

When Louisville took the floor, the reception could’ve been brutal. But Krzyzewski had asked the Cameron Crazies to lay off any off-the-field issues. So the worst sign, apparently, was a Straight-Outta-Compton-esque sign with the Louisville logo that read, “Straight Outta the Postseason.”

Ouch. As if watching ESPN flash up a “Bracketology” for the ACC without Louisville included wasn’t painful enough for the Cardinal faithful.

This was not vintage Louisville basketball. They were too rushed on offense early, and fell into a hole. Duke executed well at the end of the first half and scored six quick points to lead by 11 at the break. Before the second half was a minute old, the Blue Devils led by 15.

But Louisville showed resolve, and it came from some places you might not expect.

It came, first and foremost, from Donovan Mitchell. The freshman has adopted the endearing habit of playing his best in the biggest games. In his first game at Duke, he scored 17 points and grabbed three rebounds in 24 minutes.

But the Cards got just as big a lift from Anas Mahmoud, playing in the post for Chinanu Onuaku, who was in foul trouble. Mahmoud  scored just two points but had four rebounds and three blocks — and altered a handful of other shots. Freshman Ray Spalding saw extended playing time, scoring eight points and grabbing four rebounds with two steals in 24 minutes.

In all, Louisville’s three freshman (Mitchell, Spalding and Deng Adel) accounted for 26 of their 65 points, or 40 percent.

“You know, I think this is the best recruiting class that I’ve had in terms of quality of people, quality of athletes. But they’re just scratching their potential,” Pitino said. “All three of them have major flaws in their game and they’re just going to get better. All three of them—this is the first time in my life as a coach—I can’t tell you which one of the three will be the best basketball player. I’ve said that over and over. You know, Donovan [Mitchell] is a freak athlete, Ray [Spalding] has the best hands I’ve seen, defensively, in a long, long time, and Deng [Adel] is going to be terrific. He’s coming off of a knee surgery but he’s going to be terrific.”

This was a game, in the words of ESPN’s Jay Bilas, that Louisville needed if it wants to win an ACC championship. But it was a game Duke needed if it wants to make the NCAA Tournament. In the end, the more desperate team made a couple more plays.

“We won a heck of a game,” Krzyzewski said. “That was a great effort by our team against a team that plays so hard and good. . . . Not a good win, a great win. I’m very proud of my team. That was a big time win.”

For Louisville, it was a tough night for Damion Lee. He was 3-for-15 from the field. The rest of the team was 22-for-42. No one wants to come through more than Lee. He rushed some shots. But he was facing significant attention from Duke’s defense.

“They just really pressured him, made him shoot quick, and they just did a great job,” Pitino said. “And he’s got to learn to play without the basketball a little bit more early in the game. And slow down, slow down. He’s rushing things too much. He needs to slow down, let the game come to him, be more of a passer, and then it’ll open up more for him. But they did a great job defensively.”

The Cards didn’t get much from Chinanu Onuaku, who left the game after picking up his fourth foul with 8:32 left and didn’t return. But with the way Mahmoud and Spalding were playing, his loss wasn’t felt in a tremendous way. Mahmoud blocked and altered shots, and in some ways keyed the comeback with his defense.

In the end, Duke made 9 of 21 threes, and got 28 free-throw attempts to Louisville’s 14. If that happens to you in Cameron Indoor Stadium, you’re usually walking away with a loss.

Quentin Snider scored 12 points and made a couple of threes to help fuel the Louisville comeback, but fouled out. Trey Lewis had 11 points.

Duke’s Grayson Allen led all scorers with 19 points (and picked up a flagrant personal foul for tripping Ray Spalding after a second-half rebound). Brandon Ingram added 18 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.

Pitino was disappointed with the loss, but not with his team — and certainly not with the experience.

“It’s a great atmosphere here, it’s my first time, and I enjoyed it except for the game. There is a great student body and it’s everything I expected,” Pitino said. “The student body right on top of you. They can’t sit down, because it’s uncomfortable. You sit down you get splinters in your ass. Great atmosphere. Great people here. It was a big treat for me to coach here. I’ve been waiting a long time to come in here. You see it so much on television. I really enjoyed it. Love Mike. He’s a great man, great for our game. I loved coming in here. So thank you for that.”

Don’t get the idea that Pitino is easing up on his team. But he’s very cognizant of the reality that they have nothing waiting for them after this season. These road trips — tough as the venues are — will be the reward for these players.

“The thing I want to do more than anything else is make sure they have a great time,” Pitino told Paul Rogers in his pregame interview from Learfield Sports. “Make sure they go out with a great feeling about our university, Trey and Damion, and segue into next year with a positive attitude. . . . I wouldn’t want to go through this with any other team, or last year’s team. This team, I can tell them to keep their heads up, let this be a learning process, you’re going to have tougher days than this, and go out with a smile on your face and be professionals.”

It was an historic night, in some ways. It was the 1,000th game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was Pitino’s 1,000th game as a college coach. It was his first visit to this historic venue. And anytime he faces Krzyzewski, it’s special.

The Cards didn’t win. But maybe it’s an experience they’ll remember, anyway.

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