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Old problems crop up again for Cards as Duke rallies for 81-77 win in ACC tourney

By Russ Brown
KyForward correspondent

Sure, Louisville had a difficult time trying to contain Luke Kennard, Jason Tatum and Grayson Allen. But that trio’s substantial damage aside, the No.4-seeded Cardinals were there own worst enemy in Thursday’s 81-77 loss to No. 5 Duke in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Chalk up UofL’s second straight short stay in the tourney to three shortcomings that have plagued the Cards in all of their losses this season, along with a few victories that were closer than they should have been.

Sometimes the reasons a team wins or loses is very simple. In this case, it was deja vu all over again, as Louisville was doomed by fundamentals gone haywire — poor free throw shooting, too many fouls, and the inability to hit open perimeter jumpers when a Duke defensive change clogged the lane and cut off easy drives to the basket that had been good to UofL for 30 minutes.

Deng Adel scored 21 points for fourth-seeded Louisville (24-8), which led by a dozen with 13 minutes left but struggled from the free-throw (15 for 26) and 3-point lines (4 for 21) (UofL Athletics Photo)

All of those factors contributed to the Cards losing a 12-point lead and, ultimately, the game. Guard Donovan Mitchell put it as well as anyone.

“We lost this game ourselves,” Mitchell said.

The Cards (24-7) committed their act of masochism by (a) missing 11 of 26 free throws, including several critical ones down the stretch; (b) hitting a meager 4-of-21 shots from three-point range (19.0 percent) and (3) committing 23 fouls that led to Duke (24-8) making 22-of-31 free throws.

“I thought we played well enough to win the game,” UofL coach Rick Pitino said. “”We certainly have improved a lot offensively, but we still have some free throw shooting woes, which really hurt us. You’re going to have to shoot a decent percentage for six games to win a national championship because a missed foul shot is like a turnover. If you shoot 15-for-26, some of those being the first end of a one-and-one, you’re beating yourself.”

Mitchell, who was limited to eight points on 3-of-14 shooting after averaging 18.0 points and shooting 45 percent in 18 ACC games, said he would ask his teammates to go to the practice facility as soon as they return home to work on their free throws.

“We’re not working on them enough (before or after practice),” Mitchell said. “We’re not working on them at all. We have to stay in the gym more and keep focusing in. We all have to get in there.”

After sitting out last year’s postseason due to a self-imposed ban for NCAA violations in relation to a sex scandal, the Cards had expressed their determination to have a successful ACC run, and it looked as if they were on their way to a semifinal meeting with top-seeded North Carolina when they opened a 61-49 lead with 13 minutes remaining. But Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski ordered his team into a 2-3 zone to stop UofL’s constant penetration (46 points in the paint) and the Cards’ offense ground to a halt.

Before the zone, the Cards had hit 7-of-9 shots in the second half; after the switch, they were 6-of-18 the rest of the way and managed only one field goal in the final seven minutes.

Duke took its first lead since midway through the first half at 65-64 with 8:06 left, and eased ahead to stay on Kennard’s 3-pointer with 4:52 left that made it 73-70, the basket coming during a stretch of 10 straight points by the sophomore guard.

“Luke, wow, a couple of his shots were daggers, Krzyzewski said.

Although the Cards never regained the lead, they had a chance to pull out the win down to the final buzzer. A steal by Quentin Snider followed by his two free throws pulled UofL to within 78-77 with 23 seconds remaining.

After Kennard sank two free throws, UofL worked to get a three-pointer, but a poor offensive possession led to a forced shot by Snider that was inside the arc and was nowhere close and Kennard’s free throw closed out the Blue Devils’ win.

“So that was a quarterfinal game?” Krzyzewski said. “Holy mackeral! Wow, that was a big-time game. We beat a heck of a team and a team that could win it all really.”

Kennard, the only unanimous choice for the All-ACC first team, finished with 24 points, a game-best 10 rebounds, and three assists, with 19 of his points coming in the second half.

“I love his game,” Pitino said. “He’s a great player. I’ve always felt that, from an offensive standpoint, he was one, two or three of the best players in the country because he really knows how to play the game of basketball. He really head fakes well, he passes well and he has a great feel for the game.”

Freshman forward Tatum led all scorers with 25 points, hitting 9-of-15 shots on slashing drives to the basket and mid-range jumpers. Allen, who was scoreless in Wednesday night’s 79-72 win over Clemson, burned UofL for 18 points.

“Our guys made some big-time shots,” Krzyzewski said. “When we got down by double digits, we made a little change defensively and we started to attack. They attacked us so much at the start of the second half that we were on the bottom of a hill covered with snow catching a sled. They were just coming at us and we had to do something to stop momentum.”

One bright spot for Louisville was the outstanding all-around performance by sophomore wing Deng Adel, who had 21 points and five rebounds, hitting 7-of-14 shots — mostly on aggressive drives — and 5-of-6 free throws.

“It was just transition and getting out and running,” Adel said. “To me, I’d rather take the win than have 20 points, so I’m not really celebrating that at all.”

Snider was UofL’s only other double-figure scorer with 15 points, in addition to a game-high five assists with just one turnover.

UofL entered the tournament projected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Whether the early exit will bump them to a 3 seed, we’ll find out Selection Sunday. The Cards can point to their strength of schedule, but they are now 0-5 against ranked ACC teams on the road. Their only victory over a ranked team of any kind came against Indiana, which is no longer in the Top-25.

“We wanted to get a No. 1 seed, and we blew that opportunity today,” Adel said. “But we’ve just got to keep our heads up and get back in the gym. We have all the pieces.”

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