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DURHAM – The scandal-ridden and rag-tag Louisville basketball program that Chris Mack took over just two years ago has the gait of a legitimate national title contender, after all.
Louisville's climb to the No. 1 national ranking by the fifth week of the season with a 9-0 start was aided by stumbles from Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke, but beating Duke matters.
Beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium matters evens more with No. 11-ranked Louisville's 79-73 win Saturday night, especially since Cardinals (15-3, 6-1 ACC) handed the No. 3 Blue Devils their second straight loss. Duke hadn't lost two straight games since St. John's and North Carolina two seasons ago in Feb. 3 and Feb. 8 games. Duke (15-3, 5-2 ACC) fell out of a three-way tie for first with Louisville (15-3, 6-1 ACC) and No. 9 Florida State (16-3, 6-1 ACC).
If you want to win here," said Louisville coach Chris Mack, "especially with them coming off a loss, you're going to have to figure out a way to be the tougher team for 40 minutes.
The maturity and depth of Mack has assembled from the discombobulated roster he inherited once Rick Pitino was finally involved in one scandal too many and fired explains the quick rebuild. Three players under Pitino that averaged double figures didn't return, another transferred and a fifth graduated.
But NBA prospect Jordan Nwora returned as a sophomore a year ago and as a junior this season. He was one of only two All-ACC players back from 2018-19 as a third-team choice.
As the final seconds ticked down, Nwora taunted the Cameron Crazies, the student section, waving good-bye to them. Duke focused its defensive effort on him, and he scored only six points with eight rebounds. But freshman David Johnson, a 6-foot-5, 210-pounder that can play point guard, took advantage of the defense with 17 points in the first half and 19 for the game along with seven assists and four rebounds.
Johnson is Louisville's wild card since he missed the first month of the season with a shoulder injury. He's just now finding his stride, learning to play with his teammates and as a freshman against elite college competition, but he left the game with three minutes to play having apparently hurt his shoulder and wrist on a fall driving to the basket.
Mack, adding it was too early to evaluate the extent of the injury, said, "I wish I would have had him game one, to start the year. He lost four months. Two of those months he couldn't do anything but ride a bike."
Nwora and Johnson are mixed with starting point guard Fresh Kimble, a graduate transfer from St. Joseph's (eight points, three assists); redshirt senior starting forward Dwayne Sutton (13 points); redshirt senior center Steven Enoch (10 points); junior starting guard Darius Perry (three points); and junior backup center Malik Williams (12 points, seven rebounds).
Louisville got off to a quick first-half start, disrupting Duke's offense. The Cardinals' tight defense helped getting hands on the ball when the Blue Devils tried to drive or pass inside. The turnovers led to a 12-0 Louisville run while forcing turnovers. The Cardinals took a 19-9 lead with 12:26 left in the first half.
Duke, though, inevitably makes a run, especially at home. A year ago Louisville was the home team that couldn't protect a 23-point halftime lead, losing to the Blue Devils, 71-69. It's the largest second-half comeback in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's career.
"That sucked a year ago," Mack said. "That was the hardest loss I've ever had."
Duke's inevitable run was came from freshman guard Cassius Stanley sparking the crowd while trailing 25-10. First he drove for a basket. Then, after a Tre Jones steal, Stanley, who finished with 24 points, followed a missed Duke shot with a swooping rebound/tomahawk dunk. It sparked the loudest roar of the night.
Moments later the crowd was booing Louisville lustily.
On a loose ball after a missed Louisville shot, Stanley and Louisville's Darius Perry were tangled up at the free throw line with Stanley still on his feet and Perry on the floor beneath. Perry stood up into Stanley's stance, causing a square off.
Stanley's sequence of plays was part of a 13-2 Duke run that erased thoughts Louisville was in control of the game. The Blue Devils trailed by only five with 5:11 left in the first half, 28-23.
The Cardinals also were seemingly wounded by losing leading scorer Nwora to the bench with his second foul in the middle of the run, but that's when Johnson came off to the bench to score seven points in the final four and a half minutes. A three-pointer by Williams with one second remaining bumped Louisville's lead back to 10 points at the half, 42-32.
"I'm really proud of my kids," Mack said of fighting off that comeback and then again in the second half.
Duke point guard Tre Jones came out in the second half aggressively scoring on a coast-to-coast layup in traffic to trim the 10-point halftime deficit to 42-34. Moments later Cassius Stanley responded with a high-flying dunk and Vernon Carey was fouled after gathering a loose ball and driving to the basket. He hit both free throws to make it 42-38 with 18:24 left in the second half.
Louisville called timeout at 17:26 with a 44-40 lead. Duke eventually tied the game at 58-58 with 8:49 to play and 63-63 with 6:29 remaining. But three-pointers from Kimble and backup guard Ryan McMahon, a redshirt senior, provided leads of 66-63 and 69-65 that the Blue Devils couldn't overcome.
Krzyzewski wasn't happy with how physical the play the refs permitted, but he said the last two losses, including at Clemson, were examples of the Blue Devils lost to more mature teams that made plays.
"We just have to get older," he said. "I'm really up on my team. It's a long journey. I've never told you that we're great. It's a process for us playing these two teams. Getting beat, we have to learn from it and move on. It's a long journey."
Who could have imaged two years ago Louisville was the team with a maturity advantage?
Tom Shanahan is freelance writer based in Cary and author of Raye of Light, a book featuring Fayetteville's Jimmy Raye as a pioneering black quarterback for College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty on Michigan State's Underground Railroad football teams of the 1960s.