GREENSBORO, N.C.—With the shot clock turned off and Duke safely ahead by seven points, Dariq Whitehead anticipated the pass and jumped in front of Miami standout Jordan Miller, effectively sealing the deal for the Blue Devils.
The dunk attempt that followed, meant to act as the exclamation point on Duke’s eighth-straight win, didn’t go, as Whitehead wound up too far and lost control as he left the floor. The freshman’s eyes may have gotten a little too big on the play, and who could blame him? It would have been a fitting, almost perfect end to the night for the Blue Devils.
“He even had the steal at the end,” said a smiling Scheyer, seated on stage next to Whitehead after the game. “Which we'll talk about what happened after the steal, but he got the steal.”
Friday’s ACC tournament semifinal at Greensboro Coliseum, in the end an 85-78 Duke win, was a high-level brawl from start to finish between two of the conference’s best. Even as the fourth-seeded Blue Devils led for more than 32 minutes, No. 1-seed Miami was simply too good to fold, resisting the knockout blow until the final minutes.
There was a vindictive feeling to Duke’s win — the Hurricanes won the previous meeting 81-59 in Coral Gables, Fla., forcing the Blue Devils to take a collective look in the mirror that has now brought them to the doorstep of a championship. And while five Duke players scored in double digits Friday, Whitehead — who missed that February loss due to injury — was every bit good enough to push his team over the edge in the grudge match.
“The plan’s for it to keep going,” Whitehead said. “And keep going into March — and before, get this ACC championship tomorrow.”
As has become commonplace during the stretch run, no one player carried the torch alone for the Blue Devils. ACC Rookie of the Year Kyle Filipowski led with 17 points and 11 rebounds and Tyrese Proctor chipped in 15 points and five assists with three 3-pointers while Jeremy Roach, Mark Mitchell and Whitehead each scored 13-plus themselves.
Whitehead was the only bench player to play a significant role as graduate students Ryan Young and Jacob Grandison combined to play just eight minutes. The New Jersey native scored 16 points in 19 minutes while shooting 6-of-6 from the line, backing up head coach Jon Scheyer’s decision to ride a six-man group featuring the starting five and Whitehead for all but a handful of minutes.
“One, I'm so proud of him,” Scheyer said, “but two, we really have six starters with Dariq. And especially down the stretch, we were just rotating and keeping fresh bodies with those six guys.”
The opening frame featured 12 lead changes, but Duke never trailed in the second half. Isaiah Wong, the ACC Player of the Year, kept the Hurricanes afloat after the break, scoring in bursts for a game-high 22 points.
The moment of Wong’s fourth foul — he sent Whitehead to the stripe for three shots just before the five-minute mark after mistiming a closeout in the corner — was the beginning of the end for Miami. Whitehead hit all three to stretch Duke’s advantage to 69-65, and the Hurricanes were left grasping at straws until Roach buried a confident 3-pointer to make it 78-71 with 1:32 on the clock.
Part of Miami’s ability to hang around Friday was an effective second-half press that clearly made Duke uncomfortable. Proctor, who had one of his lowest performances as a Blue Devil at Miami in February, handled the pressure well at point guard, and Duke ultimately committed just four turnovers in the second half.
When Proctor went to the bench late, Roach and Whitehead both provided invaluable ball handling, much to the delight of their head coach after the game.
“To be honest with you, we feel we still have great ball handling,” Scheyer said of that stretch without Proctor. “That's the thing with our group, with Jeremy on the floor, Dariq, Mark, [Filipowski], and then we had Dereck [Lively II], we have four guys that can all handle. Dariq can handle, Jeremy can handle.”
For Whitehead, once the No. 3 recruit in the 2022 class, the path to Friday’s win and Saturday’s ACC tournament final has not been linear. He made his debut in the Blue Devils’ fourth game after recovering from a preseason foot surgery, and appeared to be hitting his stride in January before going down with a lower leg injury during a Jan. 23 loss at Virginia Tech.
If Friday night was any indication, Whitehead is hitting his stride again now, becoming the latest player to do so on a roster now playing with unrecognizable conviction from where it was a month ago.
“What I'm most proud of with him is how he's just battled adversity. He's battled, man,” Scheyer said of Whitehead. “He comes back. He was playing really well, gets hurt in the Virginia Tech game, and then has to do it all over again.”
Whitehead’s scoring is what jumps out, but he was also largely successful in a tough defensive assignment against the veteran Miller, a Second Team All-ACC selection who trailed right behind Wong with 17 points.
“Really was just doing whatever I needed to do to win,” Whitehead said. “So if that was guarding Miller, who is a phenomenal player on Miami, that's what it was going to take.”
In paying back their prior defeat, the Blue Devils shortened their list of unavenged losses to just two teams: Clemson and Virginia. It just so happens that a rematch with the second-seeded Cavaliers — who, amid controversy and confusion, handed Duke its most recent loss Feb. 11 — is on the docket for Saturday night’s final.
“Our main thing has just been trying to get everybody who got us earlier in the season,” Whitehead said. “We feel like we’re a different team, and I’m sure a lot of other teams can see that we’re a different team … So we’re calling it a revenge tour right now.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.