The current Cardinals wore the same style uniforms as the '86 players while beating the No. 20 Blue Devils -- Louisville's same opponent in the championship game 30 years ago -- 71-64 at the KFC Yum! Center. Yet there's no chance this group will be showered with a similar celebration on some anniversary in the distant future.
This Louisville team will miss March Madness because of a tournament ban the school imposed on itself earlier this month. So the last four regular-season games are all they've got left. And they plan to make it mean something.
Saturday's win moved No. 18 Louisville (21-6, 10-4 ACC) into a three-way tie for second place in the ACC, one game behind North Carolina. Regular-season conference championships don't normally carry much weight in a sport so obsessed with tournament results, but this is a special circumstance.
"It would mean a lot, knowing that we could get something out of this season," freshman guard Donovan Mitchell said. "We're going to do everything we can win to win a championship, so people can talk about how good we could have been."
Anyone wondering about Louisville's motivation in this final stretch of the season had to only watch senior Damion Lee on Saturday.
During pregame warm-ups, Lee dislocated a finger on his nonshooting hand when he got hit by a loose ball. Lee had no intention of missing the final home game against a ranked opponent, however, so he had trainers pop it back into place.
He struggled catching the ball and shooting it effectively in the first half. But with his adrenaline peaking in the second half, Lee hit a trio of 3-pointers to begin an avalanche that undermanned Duke was helpless to stop.
Lee finished with 24 points, the same total he had in a win over North Carolina on Feb. 1 at home. Lee and fellow graduate transfer Trey Lewis have become the tragic heroes of this team since the tournament ban was announced, but at least they've managed to put together some memorable moments and wins over the two Tobacco Road powerhouses.
"We proved that we can play with the best," Lewis said. "We proved that we are championship contenders. That's what we believe. We just wish we had that opportunity."
Louisville avenged a 72-65 loss at Duke from 12 days ago, and given how tempers have flared in plays involving Blue Devils star Grayson Allen, maybe it's a good thing the two teams won't meet a third time in the ACC tournament.
Allen was called for a flagrant foul during the game in Durham when he tripped Louisville forward Ray Spalding. During a loose-ball scrum in Saturday's second half, Allen caught an elbow to the mouth from Cardinals big man Jaylen Johnson, who was issued a technical foul. Allen fouled out of the game with 3:55 left when Johnson drew a charge on him, and Allen then got slapped with a technical foul for barking over the call.
"Look, he has been beat up the whole season, and he is a warrior," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who also got a technical foul in the second half. "Would we like him not to have that reaction? Yes. Do I understand why he had it? Yes. Just take a look at it."
Perhaps fatigue helped lead to Duke's frustration as well.
The Blue Devils entered with only a six-man rotation because of injuries to Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson. With guard Derryck Thornton suffering a shoulder injury and Allen fouling out, the team suddenly became thinner than Brandon Ingram after a weeklong cleanse diet. (The good news: Krzyzewski said Thornton -- who did return to the game -- might have only a bruise, and he's hopeful Jones will play Thursday vs. Florida State.)
Combine Duke's skeletal depth with the turnaround from Wednesday's emotional win at North Carolina, and it's no wonder the Blue Devils hit a wall down the stretch. They were outscored 33-14 over the final 12:26. Credit Louisville for hounding them on defense for all 94 feet, confident that pace and a physical style would take its toll.
"Coach was telling us the whole [game] that they were going to break, because they don't have a lot of bodies," Louisville center Chinanu Onuaku said.
It's a testament to the tightness of this Louisville team that the tournament ban didn't break the players' will. Rick Pitino acknowledged after the game that the March 1 home finale against Georgia Tech is "going to hit them hard. It's going to be very difficult on Selection Sunday for all of us."
Pitino has posted three goals for the rest of the season in the team's meeting room. Having fun and getting better are on there. And in big, bold letters, so is winning the ACC championship.
They don't hang banners in the rafters at Louisville for regular-season conference titles. That hallowed area is reserved for Final Fours and championships like the 1986 Cardinals captured. And while this team won't get the chance to chase any postseason glory, it still hopes to leave a mark -- and maybe earn a rare exception to that banner policy.
"I will try to use my persuasive ability to see what can happen for us," Lee said. "But we're going to try and enjoy these last few games we have together, because this is a very special team ."