'No better time': Blowout of Pittsburgh hints that Duke men's basketball may have saved its best for March

<p>Kyle Filipowski shrugs after an and-one in the second half of Duke's blowout win Thursday at the ACC tournament.</p>

Kyle Filipowski shrugs after an and-one in the second half of Duke's blowout win Thursday at the ACC tournament.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Kyle Filipowski caught his defender in the air, stepped through and brushed past the contact, laying one in off the glass as the referee beneath the basket signaled for a foul. 

Filipowski, about to put Duke up 63-34 at the free throw line with his 22nd and final point of the afternoon, simply kept walking toward the crowd. He offered a casual shrug, almost as if a blowout Blue Devil win had been an inevitability all along.

No. 4-seed Duke started its postseason in style Thursday afternoon, pitching what can only be considered a perfect game in a 96-69 win against No. 5-seed Pittsburgh at Greensboro Coliseum. Filipowski returned from an early injury scare to star in the win, but the Blue Devils together fired on all cylinders from start to finish, opening with a 12-0 run and closing with an ACC tournament-record 27 assists, a season-high 96 points and a ticket to a semifinal showdown Friday evening against No. 1-seed Miami.

A jaw-dropping, never-in-doubt win such as Thursday’s is often nothing more. For this Duke team, now with seven consecutive wins in its back pocket, it may well indicate that the Blue Devils’ best basketball is starting to shine through — just in time for March.

“I've thrown these guys in the fire,” Duke head coach Jon Scheyer said after the game. “They've just battled every step of the way. To me, it makes you tougher going through those things. If you don't go through them, you don't know otherwise. We've gone through some hardships, gone through some adversity, and I feel that's made us just really tough.”

Filipowski’s efficient afternoon was just the tip of the iceberg for the Blue Devils, who got double-digit scoring out of every starter but one (Jeremy Roach had nine points). Freshman guard Tyrese Proctor turned in a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists, hitting 3-of-5 threes to keep pace with Filipowski (4-of-6) beyond the arc.

The list of sparkling individual showings goes on: Freshman center Dereck Lively II provided his usual defensive boost, giving the Panthers one more 7-foot-2 reason not to approach the paint. But he also matched a career-high with 13 points and even connected on the rare 3-pointer, the second of his career. 

Roach, Mark Mitchell and Dariq Whitehead got in on the fun, too. Roach collected six assists of his own, while Mitchell and Whitehead combined for 20 points.

On a second-half poster attempt gone wrong, an airborne Mitchell still somehow managed to get the bucket to fall. It was that kind of outing for Duke — everybody had their moment in the sun.

Of those six Blue Devil standouts, only Roach had played a postseason minute before Thursday. The remaining five, all freshmen, added to the narrative that Duke’s youth is waning in importance before our eyes.

“Their freshmen have grown up. They're better. They understand college basketball now,” said Pittsburgh head coach Jeff Capel, a former Duke standout and newly minted ACC Coach of the Year. “They've been through some tough times. They've had their noses rubbed in crap, and they've stayed together and they've responded.”

Proctor and Mitchell told reporters after the game that they no longer feel much like freshmen, either. Their coach backed them up.

“To these guys' point, what they're saying about not feeling like freshmen, I just love their approach,” Scheyer said. “There's a confidence that they have, but there's also a sense of urgency. I think that's the biggest thing you feel when you're an upperclassman is a sense of urgency because you know there's a limit on how many games you can play.”

Urgency remains at the heart of Duke’s resurgence. Since suffering back-to-back losses at Miami and Virginia in early February and edging dangerously close to irrelevancy in the ACC race, the Blue Devils have won every game. Backed up against the wall, Duke burst through in the last month of the regular season to reinvent itself; now, Scheyer’s team is reaping the benefits of that urgency in the postseason.

The player benefitting most from Duke’s newfound love for balanced scoring is Filipowski. In the Blue Devils’ Jan. 11 win against Pittsburgh in Durham, the ACC Rookie of the Year clawed his team back from an 11-point halftime deficit, chipping in 28 points and 15 rebounds. 

On Thursday, Filipowski looked as if he might replicate that enormous output after scoring the game’s first six points on a pair of threes. But less than three minutes in, the star freshman twisted his left ankle on the perimeter and was forced to leave the game.

Instead of returning to Earth, the Duke offense continued to take off, essentially burying the Panthers by the time Filipowski returned with 11:16 to go in the half.

Filipowski, by having to do less with the Blue Devils flourishing on offense, has been able to do more of late (he led all scorers in just 15 minutes Thursday). That combination has elevated Duke to “hottest team in the league” status, said Capel.

“I just love it,” Lively said of Filipowski’s play after returning to the floor. “Being able to step out with an injury and still be able to come back in and be able to be that much of a force is something that not that many people can do.”

“There's no better time to peak,” Filipowski said, “than now in March.”

Chances are that the Blue Devils will not score 96 points Friday, nor will they shoot 62.1% or 11-of-26 from three. The most replicable piece of Thursday’s win for Duke was its shutdown defense.

Lively receives top defensive billing, but Proctor and Roach have been nearly as impressive in recent weeks. Together, that trio helped guarantee that only one Panther starter — First Team All-ACC selection Jamarius Burton — scored in double digits, and Pittsburgh’s 69 points were inflated by nearly a full half of consolation basketball.

“The offense has probably been a step behind our defense, but our defense has been elite,” Scheyer said. “It's been as good as anybody's in the country, especially down the stretch here, and for us, we just need to know what the winning recipe is. We've learned it, and we need to continue to do that.”

Now, the question becomes whether the Blue Devils can replicate enough of Thursday’s magic to take Friday’s grudge match against Miami and advance to the conference final Saturday evening. The Hurricanes surged to an 81-59 home win in February’s meeting, but Duke won the first matchup 68-66 in Durham back in January.

“I feel like a lot of the league doesn't respect Duke,” Lively said. “… We don't listen to anything that anyone else has to say. We're here to show the world what we can do, and I think we're on track to do that.”

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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