LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- With his team holding a 42-32 lead against Duke Saturday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium and playing exceptionally well, Louisville coach Chris Mack was able to crack a joke during his halftime interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe.
As he turned to walk off the court, he said, with a wide grin: "I can't see anyone blowing a lead against Duke. Can you?" an obvious reference to last year's 23-point meltdown with under 10 minutes remaining in a 71-69 defeat.
UofL (16-3, 6-1) again relinquished a substantial lead, but this time the No. 11/10 Cardinals summoned enough spunk, maturity and fearlessness to regroup and finish with a 79-73 win, snapping a three-game losing streak against the No. 3 Blue Devils (15-3, 5-2).
Closing out a three-game road sweep with a signature victory for Mack in his second season at Louisville enabled U of L to keep pace with Florida State (16-2, 6-1), an 83-79 overtime winner at Miami earlier in the day, for the ACC lead.
It was also, of course, sweet revenge for that heartbreaking loss a year ago in the KFC Yum! Center, whose players are ghostbusters in Mack's opinion.
"That sucked a year ago. It was the hardest defeat I've ever had," said Mack, who had refused to discuss his feelings about that game Friday. "And you go one of two ways with our team's mentality. They either think about those ghosts and get revisited, or when they (Duke) tie it, it's like they got a little moxie to them, a resiliency, and decided that can't happen again. I'm really proud of our guys, to be able to face what we did a year ago. That was a hard loss, man, a really, really hard loss. So it feels a lot better this year."
The win was the first for Louisville over a top-5 team on the road since a 66-60 upset of No. 2 Syracuse on Feb. 14, 2010, and the first anywhere since a 71-65 stunner against No. 2/1 North Carolina on Feb. 1, 2016, in the Yum.
More importantly, this was the Louisville team we had expected to see all season, one that had provided only glimpses of its potential and had failed almost every major test (see Texas Tech, Kentucky, Florida State) along the way.
But this time the Cards delivered a 40-minute message and answered their critics by providing proof that they're a legitimate national championship contender after all. They showed toughness, poise, fortitude, elasticity and offensive and defensive efficiency in the face of a super-talented opponent and the raucous "Cameron Crazies." In other words, all the elements of an elite team.
"They're good, they're really good," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "in that first half. With the depth and experience they have, they outplayed us, especially in the first 10 minutes."
And the Cards did it by surviving a quiet night from their leading scorer, Jordan Nwora, who scored a season-low six points on 3-of-12 shooting.
For the second time in five days, freshman guard David Johnson was a game-changer. He came off the bench to score 17 points in the first half and finished with a team-high 19, seven assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks before leaving the game with a left shoulder injury of unknown seriousness with 3:25 remaining after taking a hard fall when he was knocked to the floor by Jordan Goldwire while attempting a layup.
"Johnson was terrific," Krzyzewski said.
Mack said after the game that he believed the injury might be a sprain. Johnson said he thinks it is more of a bump or a bruise and insisted he'll be fine for UofL's next game against Georgia Tech at home Wednesday night.
Johnson scored in a variety of ways, attacking the basket off screens, beating the Blue Devils downcourt for transition dunks and hitting his only 3-point attempt.
"That was a lot of fun," Johnson said. "People talk about how crazy the experience is playing in here, but you don't really know until you actually play. I think that's what I fed off of."
Louisville wouldn't have won the game without Johnson, but there were obviously plenty of other contributions from his teammates to take up the slack from Nwora.
Malik Williams and Steven Enoch combined to hold Duke's standout freshman center, Vernon Carey Jr., to 12 points and six rebounds with four turnovers. Carey, who managed only six shots, got into foul trouble trying to guard UofL's two big men and was limited to 23 minutes.
Besides excelling on defense, Williams also had 12 points, seven rebounds and hit two free throws and a dunk in the final 16 seconds to ice the win. Dwayne Sutton had 13 points and five rebounds, while Enoch added 10 points as UofL outscored Duke 44-30 in the paint.
For the hosts, freshman Cassius Stanley had 24 points and 11 rebounds and also played tenacious defense against Nwora. Point guard Tre Jones got 12 points and seven assists, but hit just 5-of-16 shots and had four turnovers. The Cards shot 48.3 percent, hitting 7-of-14 three-pointers, and held the Blue Devils to 37.1%, including 6-of-25 (24.0) from beyond the arc.
"Our identity needs to be what it was tonight," Mack said. "And that's a tough team to score on, a team that really guards the lane and doesn't give up second shots. If you're going to win here, especially with them coming off a loss (at Clemson), you're going to have to figure out a way to be the tougher team for 40 minutes."
The Cards did just that from the outset. They threw the first punches and jumped to a 25-10 lead on the strength of a 18-3 run, eight of them by Johnson, who also had three assists to account for all but four of the points.
"We got hit first," Stanley said. "I think we responded well, but when you get hit first like that, it's a lot to get back."
Jones said, "That was the game right there when it comes down to it -- Louisville coming out and getting on us early. We were able to fight back, but they continued to just make plays."
Duke clawed back and tied the score twice, at 58 and 63, but could never wrest the lead away from their determined visitors.
"We never got rattled," Williams said. "We fought all the way through. Things got tough for us, they tied the game, but we kept playing, kept fighting."
Goldwire's layup with 3:26 remaining to pull Duke within 71-70 were the Blue Devils' final points until a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer as UofL scored eight straight points to pull away. Duke's last six possessions before its final basket resulted in four missed shots and two turnovers.
"When you play against a storied program in their own building, they're going to make runs," Mack said. "We talked about that before the game. The place is going crazy. We just had to figure out a way on offense to come together, get a bucket, and then find a way to get a stop.
"Really proud of our group. Beat a heck of a team, a team that's got a chance, like us, to really do some special things. I told our guys, people were talking about us barely squeaking by the past two games (at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh), but I think our team is getting better. To go 3-0 in three games on the road, we showed a lot of maturity and leadership."
The marquee matchup was the only regular season game between the two, but it's easy to envision another battle in the ACC Tournament final in March.
COACH K RIPS PHYSICAL PLAY
Krzyzewski complained that the game was allowed to get too physical even though there were 41 fouls called and he referenced the UFC fight that followed the game on ESPN.
"We were the prelim to the fight tonight," he said. "That was a brutal game, the most physical game we've been involved in in years, really. The term 'freedom of movement' was not alive and well tonight. I hope we don't have the rest of our conference games like that. I'm not a sour grapes guy, but the game should not have been played like that. You can't have that. The physicality of the game was amazing. Whenever we lose, I always credit the opponent. I'm not going to make excuses. Louisville played great; I don't want to take away from them. They could have beaten us another way too. God bless them."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.