The first half of Duke’s hard-fought 79-62 win against Louisville Monday night was neither comfortable nor pretty. The Cardinals surged to an 18-9 lead at one point behind an inferno of El Ellis 3-pointers. The Blue Devils looked stunned and the student section went quiet.
Then Duke turned on the gas, erasing the lead and capturing a sizable one of its own after Mark Mitchell nailed a couple of free throws. With the score sitting 29-24 in the Blue Devils’ favor, Tyrese Proctor pulled down a rebound and tossed the rock to a wide-open Jeremy Roach on the wing. The junior had a clear shot in sight, but elected for a different option, lobbing the ball just over the rim for Mitchell to crash down. Cameron Indoor Stadium erupted into chaos.
Before Mitchell nearly blew the roof off, Duke’s offense was all about freshman center Dereck Lively II. The 7-foot-1 Philadelphia native accounted for seven of the Blue Devils’ opening 11 points, plus an assist. With many of head coach Jon Scheyer’s most potent threats — such as Dariq Whitehead, Roach and Proctor — yet to hit full speed, the onus fell to Lively to produce on the offensive side of the ball.
While neither Mitchell nor Lively finished as Duke’s top scorer, their value in this game should not be understated — especially when the Blue Devils looked most vulnerable.
“[Lively’s] offense has been just steadily improving,” Scheyer said. “He knocked in his free throws, caught some passes in traffic and he's just, he's a threat out there.”
“People call him Easy,” Scheyer said of Mitchell. “He's easy to play with. He's a guy that just blends.”
Quietly, the duo has become arguably Duke’s most important. Kyle Filipowski — an eight-time ACC Rookie of the Week honoree — Roach, Proctor and Whitehead have all taken their turn in the scoring spotlight, but their successes can often be directly tied to the off-ball play of Mitchell and Lively.
Filipowski notched 13 points against the Cardinals, Proctor got 12 and Roach hit 14. But Lively put up 10 — plus two blocks and four rebounds — and Mitchell tied Filipowski in scoring. If the season at large is any indication, both of those things are outside the norm.
We have known about Lively’s defensive toolbox for a while, and since his eight-block, 14-rebound masterclass against North Carolina earlier this month, his renown has only grown in that regard. Similarly, Mitchell has regularly been tasked with marking the opponent’s toughest offensive force. There are not many players in the ACC, let alone the country, that can shut down North Carolina’s Armando Bacot or Miami’s Isaiah Wong like this duo did.
“He's been so consistent as far as from a work standpoint, and it's translated to what he does on the floor,” Scheyer said of Mitchell. “He can guard one through five, literally, and offensively, he can hit open threes, slashes, rebounds. He does it all.”
While Duke’s defense was good against Louisville, forcing twice as many turnovers (12) as it surrendered (six), Lively and Mitchell’s impacts were felt across the board, not just on defense.
Lively’s free throws stopped the Cardinals’ early lead from getting out of hand. Similarly, Mitchell’s pair of alley-oop connections with Roach swung the pendulum firmly in Duke’s favor after the Blue Devils took the advantage.
“Obviously [it's] always good to just get out, get dunks, get the crowd going,” Mitchell said of the sequence. “Especially when we’re playing off our defense to offense. That's just the formula to winning.”
“Just having those energy plays is great,” Lively said. “It was great seeing Mark catching lobs, great seeing him on the fast break, putting it on two people's heads.”
Those “energy plays” Lively speaks about sum this game up nicely. On the receiving end of an early 3-point barrage, Duke needed moments to galvanize the crowd and spur its players to close the gap. Lively’s reliable early scoring and Mitchell’s one-two punch of dunks did exactly that. And from there, the Blue Devils never looked back.
With Monday’s game done, Duke finds itself on a three-game winning streak, still unbeaten at home and brimming with a confidence that has scarcely emerged this season. The pieces are finally clicking into place, in large part because every player is utilizing their strengths to maximum effect.
Lively is a defender at heart — and a very good one — but it is encouraging for Blue Devil fans that he possesses the ability to produce on the other end of the floor when it is required. The same holds true for Mitchell. His defensive capabilities are notable, but he is developing a knack for clutch buckets as well. Just under a week ago, his corner three with 12 seconds to go iced a difficult fight with Notre Dame. Two successive home games in which Mitchell was largely the decider is no coincidence, and that is a major boon to Duke’s hopes as this season’s climax edges ever nearer.
“We're not going to get rattled if anybody starts hitting these shots at the start,” Lively said. “It's a long game. It's a 40-minute game, and we know damn well if we just stay in control, and we stay focused and we just play defense, offense is gonna flow. The points [are] gonna flow.”
If that happens as it did against Louisville, these Blue Devils are dangerous.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.