For me it's impossible to begin recapping this game without first talking about Kevin Ware. There are some images you see that are burned into your memory - Joe Theisman has come up a lot in the last day, as has Michael Bush (also a Louisville athlete). For me, it also brings to mind the Cincinnati Begals' Tim Krumrie (not a link to the video, by the way) and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore. What I don't remember from those that I know I will from this one was the reactions of those on the court and the sidelines. It's often said that in basketball, unlike in football, the players are exposed - there's no helmet, no shoulder pads. Because of this you get a little closer to them somehow. You can see their faces and facial expressions. Body language is more apparent. They're more human, or perhaps their humanity is just closer to the surface. Whichever it is, we saw raw humanity on the court and sidelines on Sunday night. In watching those reactions that are now well documented, there was no doubt in either the severity of the injury or the genuine concern and love the Louisville players and Rick Pitino have for Kevin Ware. As Clark Kellogg was discussing how the Cardinals might respond once play resumed, I was wondering how I as a fan/spectator would react. I have been a Duke fan for almost 30 years and yet found myself thinking, "How do you not pull for Louisville after this?" I didn't end up veering that far from my steady state, but I did get to the point where I was ultimately OK with Louisville beating my Blue Devils. And for the remaining week of this season, you can be assured that I am now fully in the Louisville Cardinal camp.
Up until and for several minutes after Ware's injury, the game was a heavyweight bout with the two teams trading blows in a game worthy of its stage, or perhaps even a larger one. Of course, with the tourney's #1 overall seed in Louisville and a Duke team that going into the ACC Tourney was projected to be the #1 overall seed, it should have felt like a Final Four (but, maybe more on the seedings later). Louisville was having success with the pick and roll and Duke was finding ways to score with Kelly hitting early shots, Sulaimon dishing some assists, and Mason playing solidly on both ends.
Seth Curry was pretty well covered up in the first half, but he broke free early in the second for 8 quick points. The game was tied at 42 and Duke fans were feeling pretty good. Seth had started to score, some of the Louisville players were getting into foul trouble. It was about that point where Clark Kellogg's question about Louisville responding to Ware's injury was answered. The ball screen that started the pick and roll in the first half was moved further away from the basket allowing the Louisville guards to get a running start heading into the lane toward Duke's bigs, now playing tentatively due to fouls. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith carved up Duke for layup after layup. To make matters worse, when the guards gave the ball up, Dieng was hitting all of his 17 foot jumpers. Duke simply didn't have an answer for Louisville's offense in the second half, giving up 50 points. Gorgui Dieng was fantastic in this game and his performance really punctuated the effect of his absence in Duke's win against Louisville in November. He scored from multiple places on the court and swatted shots on defense from just as many spots.
A veteran team - and Duke is (was) most certainly a veteran team this year - should be able to respond to a run like that. If you can't respond by getting defensive stops, you lean on your offense and at least keep scoring. You force the issue and get fouled for some easy points. You run your offense deliberately and get good shots. Duke did none of these. The ball rarely went into the post for Mason to challenge the foul-addled Cardinal big men. For several minutes Duke didn't drive the lane to get fouls. The Devils settled for quick, challenged jump shots. And they didn't go in. By the time Curry and others began getting to the line, the free throws weren't falling. Duke missed multiple front ends of one-and-ones. Panic set in and the game was over well before the clock hit zero.
I would have hoped for more from a veteran team in the face of adversity. Yes, Louisville had game and emotional momentum on their side. Yes, anyone in the crowd who wasn't pulling for Louisville to start the game (and most of them were) was cheering for them after Ware went down. And, yes, Louisville is a great team that was playing at a very high level. But Duke didn't really show much fight. Someone on the team has to have the "you're not going to beat me today" attitude. Someone has to take it personally when a team is trying to end your college career. That persona has been missing from Duke's roster for a few years.
That said, I am not unhappy with this loss overall, even leaving out the Ware factor. We'll recap the season shortly and evaluate both Duke's and UNC's performances compared to expectations, but the Creighton, Mich. St., and Louisville games constitute a pretty good tournament run for the Devils. In the Creighton game, Duke stopped one of the nation's leading scorers. Against the Spartans, Duke beat a tough Big Ten team (and beating Tom Izzo in March is no small task). And Louisville is currently a buzz saw that's the odds-on favorite to win it all (less than scratch, actually!). I find myself as content in the nascent season's end as I have been in a while (outside of 2010, of course).