Duke started four freshmen. Tennessee countered with four seniors.
It was an expected contrast when the teams locked horns in their NCAA Tournament East Region second-round game at Amway Center on Saturday.
But the age difference was just one thing the Blue Devils weren’t able to overcome in the 65-52 loss that ended their season. It was the tough approach the Volunteers brought on both ends of the court, their affinity for shoving and bodying up on defense, that proved to be something Duke (27-9) ultimately couldn’t handle.
“They’re a really physical and really chippy team,” Duke 7-foot freshman center Kyle Filipowski said. “But you kind of have to pull on your big boy pants and fight back.”
Asked if the Blue Devils did that, Filipowski paused before saying, “I feel like we did it with a good sense of class.”
As he spoke, Filipowski displayed an open wound and bruise on his cheek below his left eye, the result of an elbow that caught him early in the first half. No foul was called on the play but, seconds later on the same Volunteers possession, Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi picked up a foul for swinging his elbow while holding the ball and catching Duke freshman guard Tyrese Proctor in the face.
For Filipowski, it reminded him of earlier instances this season, like when Virginia Tech’s M.J. Collins turned up court after scoring a late basket during a Jan. 23 game and punched his fist in the air in celebration, only to catch Filipowski in the throat.
No foul was called on that play, either.
A foul was called at Virginia when Reece Beekman and Ryan Dunn blocked Filipowski’s shot just before the buzzer in a tie game. The game officials looked at replay and waved off the foul, though, which the ACC said was done in error to allow Virginia to win 69-62 in overtime.
“I just can’t catch a break this whole year,” Filipowski said.
As controversial as that loss at Virginia on Feb. 11 was, it marked the last time the Blue Devils suffered a defeat until they met up with Tennessee on Saturday night.
The Vols were not impressed or intimidated by the 10-game winning streak Duke had constructed, nor the Blue Devils’ 13 wins in their past 15 games.
Big, tough Tennessee intended to advance to the Sweet 16, and didn’t mind shoving its way to that goal.
“I feel like each team looked at us,” Duke 7-1 230-pound center Dereck Lively said, “and said, ‘Oh we’re going to try to be more physical than the last one.’ But that doesn’t shock us. They came out and they started throwing elbows, they came out playing dirty. We didn’t care. We punched back. We tried to stay with them the entire first half and make it a dogfight.”
Duke trailed 27-21 at halftime and Tennessee’s lead was just four points with 9:10 to play after Filipowski spun in the lane to score, leaving Duke down 46-42.
But the Blue Devils would get no closer.
“We’re not going to shy away from physicality,” Lively said. “We go right into it. I think that’s what we did, but they were able to hit a couple more shots.”
Tennessee pulled away from Duke in those final nine minutes, snapping the Blue Devils’ winning streak that had earned them an ACC championship and advancement out of the NCAA Tournament’s first round. But the Blue Devils didn’t have enough to advance out of the tournament’s first weekend and into the Sweet 16.
Saturday marked Duke’s lowest-scoring game of the season. The Blue Devils shot 42.1%, hitting just 6 of 22 3-pointers. Four of those 3-pointers came in the first half as Duke was 2 of 11 on them after halftime.
Duke turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, finishing with 15 turnovers. The Blue Devils’ six offensive rebounds were their fewest in a game this season.
“It was probably our most physical game all season,” Duke junior guard Jeremy Roach said. “We felt like we knew that, but they did a good job trying to disrupt our offense. They did a lot of switching, just being real physical with us. They were a good, tough team.”
It didn’t help that Duke was without 6-8 freshman Mark Mitchell, who had started every game for the Blue Devils this season. After tweaking a knee in practice on Friday, Mitchell tested the injured joint in pregame warmups. Duke coach Jon Scheyer initially had Mitchell in the starting lineup, but scratched him five minutes before the game and had 6-7 forward Dariq Whitehead start instead.
“Mark has been a warrior for us all year,” Scheyer said. “Showed up every single day, competed every day, and right before the tip he just didn’t have the same burst. So obviously not going to put him out there if he didn’t feel great, and he didn’t.”
Duke missed Mitchell’s defensive versatility and his underrated scoring contributions. The Blue Devils went 15-1 this season when Mitchell scored 10 points or more.
But his absence left them lacking in the game that ended their season.
While saying his team needed better shot selection, Scheyer noted that Lively didn’t attempt a shot even though he had 12 rebounds.
“For us as an offense, I could have helped these guys more,” Scheyer said. “We could have done more things to get quality looks. You have to really work for everything in a game like this. You have to work to get open. You have to work on your drives, and that’s really what it comes down to.”
Duke showed enough offense to win the ACC championship last week in Greensboro, averaging 80 points while winning three games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman guard Tyrese Proctor’s 16 points and six assists helped the Blue Devils stay within striking distance of Tennessee for a while on Saturday. But with Roach in foul trouble after picking up his fourth with 15:01 to play against Tennessee, Duke lacked enough punch to surpass and vanquish the Volunteers.
Scheyer’s first season as Duke’s head coach ended with one goal achieved (the ACC title), but others out of the team’s reach.
“We ran into the wrong team on the wrong day,” Scheyer said. “They outplayed us today, and you have to credit them. But I felt like we could play with anybody in the country. That’s, for me, by far the most rewarding thing. To represent the school where I played, where I’ve coached for the last nine years has meant the world, and I’m just proud of these guys for what they’ve done.”