ORLANDO, Fla.— Duke’s 10-game win streak, along with head coach Jon Scheyer’s first year at the helm, has come to an end.
No. 5-seed Duke could not top No. 4-seed Tennessee, falling 65-52 Saturday afternoon in a defensive nail-biter at the Amway Center. Despite an early lead, the Blue Devils found themselves trailing at the half with a deficit they could not claw their way back from. As junior captain Jeremy Roach played with four fouls and freshman forward Mark Mitchell sat out with a knee injury, it was up to the four freshman starters to put the team on their backs, a task that was too much for the young guns Saturday.
"I'm incredibly proud of our team," said Scheyer after the game. "We've had a really great season, and it's hard to reflect on all that right now in the moment. I'm hurting for these guys. They've given us everything you could ask for."
With just more than one minute to play, Josiah-Jordan James’ jumper bounced off the rim. Olivier Nkamhoua grabbed the rebound and emphatically hammered it through the hoop. Tennessee’s lead was 11, and Duke’s season was essentially ended.
With the offense in desperate need of points, it was Tyrese Proctor and Kyle Filipowski who stepped up to the plate. The point guard sank jumper after jumper to keep his team in the running, totaling 16 points. Filipowski recovered from a subpar first-half showing to put up 16. However, it was Nkamhoua who got the final say. The senior forward dominated Duke’s typically lockdown defense, scoring 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting in just 22 minutes.
"We were playing through physicality, we would get hit and we hit them back. So being able to stay poised and stay safe. Keep your foot on the gas the whole game, but they were just being able to come out on top," said freshman center Dereck Lively II.
The Blue Devils’ efforts to chip away at the Tennessee lead were never quite enough to put themselves back on equal footing. Roach picked up his fourth foul with just more than 15 minutes to play, limiting his impact down the stretch.
"One is trying to make sure we have as much gas in the tank as possible, but also trying to protect him. We need him in the game," said Scheyer on the game plan with Roach in foul trouble.
The Volunteers came out of the halftime break on a mission. James made a quick 3-pointer, increasing Tennessee’s lead to 33-24. Roach, playing with three fouls, appeared to take that personally. The captain made Duke’s first field goal in nearly seven minutes, a three of his own in response to Tennessee’s opener. When Nkamhoua turned around and hit a triple, Roach followed it up with a layup, cutting the deficit to seven and lighting a fire under his teammates.
Moments later, Proctor was fouled on a 3-point attempt and sank all three free throws. On Duke’s next possession, he muscled through contact for the layup, and the Volunteer lead sat at 33-31 with 15:40 to play, the closest the Blue Devils had been to the lead since the final minutes of the first half.
The Blue Devils weren’t always playing from behind. With just more than eight minutes to play in the opening period, Filipowski turned a strong defensive possession into two quick points on a driving layup, putting Duke up 19-13. Sixteen seconds later, Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi drained a three, sparking a 14-2 run to end the first half. The Blue Devils failed to score a field goal for nearly four minutes to close out the period, seeing their hard-fought lead turn into a 27-21 deficit at the break.
"We couldn't really get shots, a lot of turnovers," said freshman forward Dariq Whitehead. "... We knew it was going to be physical coming into the game, and I just feel like we didn't adjust to that well in the first half."
Continuity defined Duke’s 10-game win streak and ACC title run — a constant starting lineup, a healthy roster and sheer playing experience. At 2:51 p.m. Saturday, that continuity was broken when the program announced Mitchell as questionable with a knee injury.
"It happened last second," said Scheyer on Mitchell's injury. "Mark hurt his knee. We're not sure quite what's wrong. We need to still do some follow-ups with him... He's been a key guy for us. He's started every game. He's really the guy where he defends everybody."
The difference was evident. In the first half, the Blue Devils had 11 turnovers, a mark on track to match their season-high of 22 giveaways they set against Virginia. They made 1-of-4 free throws despite their 76.8% average from the line. They were outrebounded in the period, only pulling down four offensive boards despite it being one of their biggest strengths.
With the rotation cut to eight players for the majority of the contest in Mitchell’s absence, foul trouble proved crucial. Roach picked up three personal fouls in the first half. The guard’s first-half play was inconsistent — while he did make both of his 3-point attempts, he gave the ball up four times.
Saturday was the Blue Devils’ first deviation from their usual starting lineup since a Jan. 23 loss to Virginia Tech, ending a 15-game streak during which they went 13-2. While Whitehead, who started in Mitchell’s place, has been tremendous off the bench this postseason, Duke missed Mitchell, especially in the opening minutes. The Volunteers got on the board first but the Blue Devils quickly took the lead. However, a nearly four-minute scoring drought and 6-0 Tennessee run flipped the script.
A contributor to the disruption? Early contact to Filipowski’s face, resulting in a bleeding cut underneath his eye and a stint on the bench to be checked out. While he did return less than two minutes later, the freshman struggled to get hot, going 2-for-8 from the field in the first half with only two rebounds and two turnovers.
The loss ends Duke’s season. Despite its ACC tournament title, the Blue Devils ultimately failed to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in Scheyer’s first year at the helm.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.