BLACKSBURG, Va.—It is, after all, a team game.
On a night when Duke had control, then lost it, then regained it, then lost it again before falling to Virginia Tech in a 78-75 thriller in Cassell Coliseum, one thing is clear. Kyle Filipowski, once the third-best prospect (on paper) in the Blue Devils’ loaded freshman class, is a full-fledged star.
Clearly, that’s not a daring declaration, but after the New York native dropped a career-high 29 points, including four triples—along with his usual, and seemingly routine, 10 rebounds—the obvious has to be addressed.
“He's a big-time warrior man,” head coach Jon Scheyer said on Filipowski. “He's a competitor, he hates to lose, thought you could see that tonight. He really put us on his back and willed us to put us in position to win that game.”
But something else stares you straight in the face after Duke’s fourth loss in five ACC road games, and it’s this: As consistently excellent as Filipowski has been, and despite taking it up a notch against a Hokie bunch firing on all cylinders, the guys around him have to play better for the Blue Devils to win.
That applies to Jeremy Roach, who, in just his second game back from reaggravating a right toe injury earlier this month, was 3-of-9 from the field and absent down the stretch. Known for his ability to step up in the clutch—the Blue Devils simply do not advance past Michigan State and Texas Tech last March without him—Roach did not attempt a shot in the final 5:44 Monday.
With Filipowski facing double teams from the baseline, the perimeter and seemingly from the riled-up Virginia Tech faithful in attendance, the player with the most experience in these types of situations has to step up.
That applies to Mark Mitchell, whose defensive prowess jumps out at you, but whose offensive skill set does not scream consistent scoring threat just yet. The Kansan has a motor that lasts for every possession, but too often, Mitchell spins into a double team or fails to finish through contact.
That even applies to Tyrese Proctor, who drilled the most consequential shot of his college career to date with a right-wing three that tied things up at 75 with just under 40 seconds to play. But one consequential shot often leads to another, and with Duke trailing by two and the clock ticking down, Proctor, who said after the game that “all the little possessions add up,” got a clean look off a broken play, one that Scheyer said was meant for Filipowski to come off a screen set by graduate center Ryan Young.
Instead, Virginia Tech guard Sean Pedulla, who was guarding Proctor, ran into Young and left the Australian open on the wing. It was not to be, as the shot fell woefully short.
“I think he took a great shot, and I had the confidence in him to shoot that ball. … I’m gonna tell him to shoot it again, I’m gonna pass him the pass if it comes like that,” Filipowski said.
Contrast all this with what Virginia Tech got from its supporting cast. Grant Basile, the Hokies’ second-leading scorer, was a force inside en route to 24 points, giving Young serious trouble in the paint.
Yet Basile was not alone, as Pedulla and Hunter Cattoor, a duo that outplayed Roach and Proctor to the tune of 31 combined points and eight combined triples, carried much of the load in the first half.
This one was in serious danger of getting away from the Blue Devils, as the Hokies held a double-digit lead as intermission approached. But Filipowski nailed a triple to send Duke into the locker room down just seven, and the message from Scheyer at the half was straightforward.
“I was very calm at halftime and just matter of fact, if we just can string together some stops, we can score against them,” Scheyer said on his directive to his group at the break. “And I thought we came out in a very competitive way, playing great together at the start of the second half and just like that it was a game again.”
On that front, Scheyer is correct. Duke dug in defensively early in the second half, containing a Virginia Tech group that cuts and screens as hard as any in the conference. More than six minutes into the period, Duke led 58-53, and the Hokies were just 3-of-10 from the field in the half.
But to make those stops truly count, you have to convert on the other end, and true to form, Filipowski was the one who brought Duke level, and then ahead of the hosts. As if Scheyer was saying “again” a la Herb Brooks (portrayed by Kurt Russell) in “Miracle,” Filipowski hit a trifecta of threes that brought Duke within one, within two and pushed it ahead by three—all in a roughly four-minute stretch.
But the six-time ACC Rookie of the Week could not be the primary option on every trip down the floor, and too often down the stretch, the complementary players around him could not make the plays needed to ensure that arguably the best performance of his college career resulted in a win.
There were flashes of improvement on the offensive end, with a well-executed lob to Dereck Lively II, a gritty finish at the rack from Roach and a textbook post entry from Proctor to Young proof that trusting your sets and reads can lead to quality looks.
But the fact of the matter is this: With the contest knotted at 75 and Virginia Tech needing a bucket, the Hokies, instead of going into iso mode, stuck to their offensive principles, and guard MJ Collins nailed a jumper that ultimately served as the clincher. Duke then went empty on its last two possessions, and that was the difference. Late in the contest, on the road against a desperate conference opponent, the Blue Devils did not make the play they truly needed.
“There’s no good losses, but, there’s progression and there’s growth, and that’s something that this team has to build and rely on,” Young said. “I think our ceiling’s as high as anybody, but it’s up to us to reach our potential.”
Obviously, the sky is not falling. Mitchell referenced the Blue Devils’ improvement in road environments, from N.C. State to Clemson to now. Roach will eventually return to the starting lineup and grow more comfortable playing with Proctor as the de facto point guard. Lively, while not there yet as a finisher, has been much more aggressive since Duke's Jan. 11 win against Pittsburgh.
Scheyer did not provide an update on Whitehead, who was helped off the floor at the under-16 timeout in the second half by Kale Catchings and Christian Reeves after looking comfortable as both an initiator and cog in the offense en route to 10 points in the opening period.
With Duke sitting at 5-4 in the ACC and a grueling stretch to come (Wake Forest and North Carolina at home, No. 20 Miami and No. 7 Virginia on the road in the next five contests), the urgency to give Filipowski a bit of help is evident.
The freshman needs it, and so does Duke.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.