LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It was supposed to be a Duke takeover of the KFC Yum! Center.
That was the forecast from Las Vegas. That was the pre-game scene that made University of Louisville Athletic Director Vince Tyra blink when he walked into the arena about 90 minutes before tipoff.
Duke fan after Duke fan after Duke fan for as far you could see, at least 10-12 rows deep around the south end of the building where Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and the rest of Mike Krzyzewski’s Beatles were warming up.
“I’ve never seen that many fans of the opposing team in here,” Tyra said. “Even Kentucky.
“As soon as the doors opened, they all ran in trying to get as close to the court as possible to take pictures.”
Picture this: They saw a game they’ll be trying to explain for years.
With 9:55 to play Duke was beaten. Down 23. Nearly out of timeouts. Nearly out of hope. Even Coach K seemed resigned to suffering the Blue Devil' worst defeat since 2013. Duke had not trailed by more than 16 all season. They couldn't do this, not on the road.
Then the Blue Devils put a thunderous 35-10 punch on the Cardinals. They pressed. Louisville turned it over. They pressed some more. Louisville stopped attacking. They kept pressing. Louisville called every one of its timeouts. Duke pushed, Louisville sagged.
When the officials reversed a charging call against Cam Reddish with 14.9 seconds to play and made it a block on Ryan McMahon, Duke was ready to complete the improbable comeback.
Reddish made both free throws. Christen Cunningham missed a 10-footer in the lane. Williamson grabbed the rebound. The buzzer sounded.
The improbable upset was overturned by a more improbable comeback.
And the Cardinals lost in a way that was more unsettling than the game they lost in the final seconds to Virginia last season.
For more than 30 minutes, Louisville made the No. 2 team in America look like the junior varsity Tuesday night, overwhelming the Blue Devils in every aspect of the game.
The Cardinals' largest crowd of the season might have included several thousand Duke fans, but you could not see the folks in blue or hear them not long after the game began.
In fact, every Louisville fan in the lower arena stood and roared through the entire second half, especially after the Blue Devils missed 12 of their first 13 shots and stumbled behind by 23 points. That’s fairly noteworthy for a team that had only lost twice in its first 23 games by a combined six points.
Eight NBA scouts gathered along the baseline before the game — at the end of the court where Williamson and friends were stretching, dribbling and launching jump shots.
No NBA scouts gathered where Jordan Nwora, Cunningham, Steven Enoch. Air ball.
Nwora led Louisville with 23, outplaying Williamson — until it counted. Williamson led the Duke rally with 27. He was assisted by Reddish who had 22.
The Cardinals put the building on TILT quickly, frustrating the Blue Devils with assertive defensive effort designed to keep Coach K’s collection of NBA Lottery picks out of the lane.
Duke played like a team still reading its press clippings from its victory at Virginia last Saturday, the game that confirmed the Blue Devils’ spot as the overall projected No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
They failed to make shots, missing six of their first seven. They defended like freshmen, especially against Cunningham. He knifed through the Blue Devils to assist on seven of Louisville’s 16 field goals in the first half.
Then in the final 9 1/2 minutes it all changed. Duke did what only a team like Duke can do. And Louisville never found the answers.
Now it is Louisville that will need to avoid a letdown when Clemson visits at noon Saturday.
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