The fortress, at last, falls.
In a Thursday press conference, Duke head coach Jon Scheyer said that he hopes to schedule more home-and-home matches with nonconference titans in the near future. With a crowd clad in white and a decibel count at a level only a North Carolina game can match, that quest got off to a roaring start Friday night, as the second-ranked Blue Devils lost 78-73 to No. 12 Arizona in a back-and-forth battle at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The defeat ends Scheyer’s undefeated streak at home — a stretch of 17 games dating back to last season, and marks the first loss at Cameron Indoor since March 5, 2022.
"I'm thankful for them, for the reality check, the game," Scheyer said. "We're both coming out of here, I wish it was with a win. But I do know we're coming out of here with a lot that we can do better."
If the return of former Tar Heel guard Caleb Love — who sank the dagger to send Duke (1-1) out of the Final Four two seasons ago — to Cameron Indoor Stadium got the fans angry, early physicality from the Wildcats (2-0) incensed the Blue Devil players. Just seconds into the game, center Oumar Ballo slammed home a dunk to open the scoring followed quickly by a layup from guard Pelle Larsson. What followed was a foul-heavy, lightning-quick first half with a thunderous Cameron Crazie crowd to match.
Love’s impact was relatively limited for much of the game, but in his typical style he made plays when his team needed them. The St. Louis native was given the ball well outside the arc and hurled up a prayer as the first-half clock hit zeroes. The ball sailed past sophomore forward Mark Mitchell’s outstretched hand and banked in, turning Arizona’s then-five-point lead into a 41-33 advantage at the break.
As it was two seasons ago, Love was the one who drained four free throws as Duke looked to stop the clock and get a chance at redemption — playing spoiler at Cameron Indoor once more and handing his new Wildcats the final advantage they would not surrender.
"It's tough, man," Filipowski said. "It's not really about the outside noise and expectations people have for us, and what they think of, it's just really what I think of this team ... these hard-fought losses are really tough, especially when it's against another great team."
Two missed free throws with under three minutes to go from Wildcat guard Jaden Bradley gave the Blue Devils an opportunity to take the lead down the stretch. Senior guard Jeremy Roach took the designed play off freshman Tyrese Proctor from the inbound with 3.3 seconds on the shot clock and leapt up at the corner. The ball fizzed through the nylon without a sound, before Cameron Indoor erupted and Duke slapped the court.
"You gotta give them credit," Scheyer said about Arizona. "They're very good team, I thought they were more aggressive in the first half. I didn't think we played our best. Despite that, we're right there at the end of the game. It comes down to one or two plays."
Duke launched off the blocks in the second half, as sophomore big-man Kyle Filipowski laid the ball in before nailing a clean three from just off center. Arizona responded with a Ballo back-down bucket and a Larsson three, but a Filipowski drive gave the Blue Devils another couple points.
The Wildcats brought the ball up the court but Larsson’s one-handed heave to Ballo at the top of the arc jetted straight out of bounds. The student section’s rickety wooden benches quaked under the pressure of stomping fans as Filipowski flexed at the crowd and screamed. The ball was firmly, and literally, back in Arizona’s court to respond.
A KJ Lewis layup did just that, but back-to-back threes from Filipowski and senior guard Jeremy Roach had the Blue Devils back within two. Freshman forward Sean Stewart, who just entered the game for Mitchell, boxed out his man for a defensive rebound, fed it to Roach and set a screen, and the captain charged to the rim. Stewart added a bucket of his own, and Duke officially had its first lead since just under six minutes remained in the opening half.
Love’s first-half buzzer-beater was one example of a clutch play Friday night, but Ballo and Roach both made a fair few of their own, too. The Duke captain nailed a contested step-back three to cut Arizona’s lead to one before a powerful drive by Ballo and a clever step under the basket allowed him to lay the ball in for his 12th and 13th points of the night.
After that clutch Roach three from the corner, San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson grabbed a bucket of his own, knotting the contest at 67-67 with just over a minute to play. Filipowski put the ball through under heavy pressure, but Johnson again played hero for the Wildcats, getting a bucket of his own before sinking a free throw on Filipowski’s fourth foul.
After missing the Blue Devils’ season opener against Dartmouth with a sprained ankle, Mitchell made his return against the Wildcats, reinstating one of Duke’s most talented defenders into the lineup and adding an early livewire against Arizona’s beat-em-up style of play.
"They do a great job of it. When you don't have a shooter on the floor, they just play off," Scheyer said. "And they just really stay with everybody else. It takes away passing. So it kind of puts you in a position to play more one-on-one. And they're smart with how they do that. But it stood us up."
The Kansas City, Kan., native closed the tap on a number of promising Wildcat possessions with his towering wingspan — including a key early block — and an imposing presence in the paint, backing down the Arizona frontcourt for a series of tough finishes at the rim. In large part, Mitchell’s drives were a product of necessity as the Blue Devils’ usual suspects — their backcourt — nailed just two of 12 attempts from downtown in the first half.
Although Duke’s backcourt didn’t put up as many points as we’ve become accustomed to in the opening stages, the trio of Jared McCain, Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach still made its influence known. McCain caught fire as the first half wore on, snubbing a streaking Mitchell down the wing for a go at the top of the arc, sinking the Blue Devils’ second 3-pointer of the night. Filipowski was fouled in the post, too, and after sinking both of his free throws Duke had leveled the contest at 21 all.
It was a pattern that endured for the whole game — big Wildcat lead makes Duke catch up. Ultimately, after 40 minutes of doing this dance, Arizona earned the encore.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Blue Devils, who have just three days of rest before a trip to Chicago to take on preseason No. 4 Michigan State in the Champions Classic.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.