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Duke regaining confidence to confront defining stretch of season

DURHAM, N.C. – Player interviews wrapped up in the Duke locker room and reporters had mostly trickled out when junior guard Matt Jones entered and shouted, ‘Wooooo,” so loud and concise that Ric Flair would be proud.

It’s not a normal reaction, publicly anyway, for a Duke locker room.

Then again, the Blue Devils’ 72-65 win over No. 13 Louisville wasn’t a normal win.

And it has definitely not been a normal season.

“We’re a middle-of-the-pack ACC team right now with four losses,” Jones said.

Middle of the pack? Duke?

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying," Jones continued. "We still have that three-game [losing streak] in our minds. We don’t want to go back to that. ... We’re not a team that can get complacent, we’re not a team that can come in and win the games just by showing up.”

Louisville was the team, fresh off its announcement of a self-imposed postseason ban, that came into Cameron Indoor Stadium with a sense of desperation. The ACC regular-season title is the only crown the Cardinals have left to play for as a team.

Duke played with its own sense of urgency, knowing it just reached the unforgiving part of the schedule with dates against No. 7 Virginia, at No. 9 North Carolina and then back at Louisville looming. This could be the stretch that defines the Blue Devils’ season.

“We needed to prove something,” freshman guard Luke Kennard said. “We’re a team, we’ve battled through things and are trying to climb our way back to the top.”

Beating the Cardinals was a good place to start.

It was arguably the Blue Devils' best win of the season. They pulled it out having lost every bit of a 15-point lead, even trailing by one with six minutes left. They came together after falling apart, which they failed to do in home losses to Notre Dame and Syracuse.

After the loss to the Orange, the Blue Devils had their pass revoked in the top 25 polls and were escorted out for the first time since 2007. A bit of the Duke mystique went with it, and even some of the players’ confidence.

Games like Monday’s win, and how they perform over the next 12 days against the top three teams in the league standings, will determine if the Blue Devils can gain it all back.

Sophomore guard Grayson Allen and other players all said that two weeks ago, they would have collapsed against a team like Louisville.

The signs are there that the Blue Devils are starting to improve. Duke relies on its core of Jones, Allen, Brandon Ingram and Marshall Plumlee to play about 35 minutes each game.

Kennard has become more consistent with his shooting. Point guard Derryck Thornton continues to take small steps, including hitting a jumper with 33 seconds left with Louisville still hanging close. Even center Chase Jeter appears to be a bit more self-assured when he comes off the bench now as opposed to the bewildered look he had at times early in conference play.

“It shows that we’re learning,” Jones said. “You can think back to Syracuse and Notre Dame when we’ve been in that position, and it didn’t really turn in our favor, so for us to kind of overcome that, it was huge. And it shows that we’re learning.”

In an oddity, the Blue Devils’ win over Louisville marked their first over a ranked team this season. That usually happens in November for Duke, which is why coach Mike Krzyzewski said this team isn’t thinking about March. So please don’t ask him about scenarios and seeding from the latest bracketology.

“I’ve had a bunch of teams that we could simulate. This is not one of them,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve just got to keep mucking about, keep getting better, keep earning it and be this Duke team. And they’re becoming this Duke team, whatever that is. It’s good.”

Whatever it is, it’s still without senior forward Amile Jefferson, who has been out since early December with a foot injury. Krzyzewski said the broken bone is “healing well” but Jefferson “just hasn’t got past the pain,” so he continues to be out with no forseeable return in site.

“Since Amile went out, we’re a very limited team that’s trying to get better that has to fight like crazy to make the tournament,” Krzyzewski said. “We knew that in December, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”