Most sports stories are defined by a measure of success—how many points a player scored or how many games a team won, to name a few—but for freshman phenom Kyle Filipowski, his story Tuesday was not just defined by his successes, but how he was able to adapt in the face of adversity.
Duke hosted Notre Dame Tuesday night after two difficult road losses to No. 15 Miami and then No. 7 Virginia. The Fighting Irish, whose season was derailed as soon as conference play began, had won just two ACC games before heading to Durham with an 0-6 record on the road. Despite the numbers pointing to a Blue Devil blowout, Notre Dame put up a fight, bringing the game down to the wire. Though Duke ultimately defeated the South Bend, Ind., outfit 68-64, it could not have done it without Filipowski.
“Definitely going into the beginning of the game, I had this edge, this chip on my shoulder,” Filipowski said after the game. “Keeping my mental health and mindset strong, not getting discouraged easily, and being aggressive—making a statement. Still showing that people disrespect me in this game and they don’t know what I’m capable of. So I still gotta go out there every day and prove something more.”
Before the matchup, some what-ifs went into whether the Westtown, N.Y., product would even be able to suit up for the Valentine’s Day contest. On the final, controversial play of regulation Saturday at Virginia, Filipowski sprained his ankle, leaving his status in question until Tuesday afternoon.
Before the Blue Devils flew out to Miami after their thrilling win against North Carolina, Filipowski was averaging 18.7 points per game since the new year. But in the two games and 10 days between that matchup against the Tar Heels and Tuesday, the freshman faced offensive difficulties that had not been a problem during his nine-game double-digit scoring run to start 2023. Against the Hurricanes, Filipowski was limited to just nine points in the 81-59 loss. Against the Cavaliers, he had zero points.
Since the start of the season, Filipowski has been head coach Jon Scheyer’s go-to man. Though just a freshman, he leads the team in scoring, minutes, field goals, free throws made, rebounds and steals—and he is one of just two players, alongside Mark Mitchell, to have started each of Duke’s 26 games. Could all of these achievements finally be pushing Filipowski to his limit?
If anyone thought so, the young star proved them wrong against Notre Dame. Filipowski not only scored a team-high 22 points, his most in nine games, but he was a playmaker and leader for the winning team.
“I thought he was strong throughout,” Scheyer said of Filipowski. “I mean when he’s that way … I mean 22 points is great of course, but the attention that he draws. [Mitchell’s] first three came from them doubling [Filipowski] in the post, and so they had to really adjust when he’s aggressive and attacking that way.”
At 7-foot, Filipowski is one of Duke’s most imposing players on either side of the court. While he has been one of the team’s most consistent sources of offense, with the ability to shoot from anywhere, he is also a capable defender. That end of the ball did not show on paper Tuesday—Filipowski had just one block and no steals against the Fighting Irish. But his competitive fire on defense was clear throughout the night, as the freshman’s interior presence forced Notre Dame to get crafty near the basket.
After two games in which he struggled, Filipowski’s production against the Fighting Irish proved, among other things, how much he cares. The switch did not just “flip”—it was the whole breaker box. Without it, Duke’s ceiling is significantly lower.
“We’re getting towards the end of the season right now,” Filipowski said. “There’s really no more room to screw up or learn lessons from losses. You need to learn those lessons from wins. I think this game we won tonight is starting a really good streak for us for the rest of the season. We’re gonna use that to build off of it going down the road.”
Filipowski shot 9-of-16 from the floor Tuesday, including a 4-of-6 performance in the first half, while showing off his improving execution down the stretch. While he may have appeared to tire out late in games earlier in the season, the seven-time ACC Rookie of the Week showed up late in his team’s win.
Like Paolo Banchero or even the all-star trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish before him, Filipowski is an example of the talent that Duke relies on each season to remain competitive. Former head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was in attendance for Tuesday’s game, may no longer be at the helm of the program, but the star freshman feels like a relic of an old Blue Devil team. As one of the most prolific freshmen in the nation, he is connecting it to this new era led by Scheyer.
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