Kyle Filipowski opened up the Blue Devils’ first possession with a turnover. Two possessions later, he would miss a layup, followed by a personal foul. With its preseason All-American struggling for the entirety of the first half, No. 9 Duke was in danger of faltering without a strong response from Filipowski’s supporting cast.
And what a response it was.
After going down 5-3, the Blue Devils put their foot on the gas, scoring 17 unanswered points by the midpoint of the first half. Notre Dame would cut the lead to eight by the end of the period, but a strong second half by sophomore forward Mark Mitchell closed the door on the comeback attempt, sealing Duke’s 71-53 victory.
“I thought it was a great team effort [and a] really good response,” head coach Jon Scheyer said, alluding to the Blue Devils’ weekend loss to North Carolina. “A bunch of different guys stepped up … the bench gave good energy, good minutes, [and] we’re gonna need more of that.”
Freshman forward Sean Stewart was emblematic of that “good energy” and proved himself as an important cog to the Blue Devils’ strong, yet flawed, machine Wednesday night. The Windermere, Fla., native scored four points and garnered five rebounds in 11 minutes of play.
“[Stewart] just threw himself into competing,” Scheyer said. “I’m proud of him for the effort that he gave, but also the lift. We needed it.”
After the freshman missed two free throws in the first half, Scheyer noted that Stewart “[was] mad at himself” but had a “next play mentality” that provided the Blue Devils with momentum.
The next play in question? A block, followed by an emphatic dunk by the 18-year-old over Notre Dame guard Markus Burton courtesy of a perfect lob from fellow freshman Caleb Foster.
“It’s just me and [Stewart’s] chemistry,” Foster said. “I knew that when I saw Burton down there, he wouldn’t be able to jump with him. So I just threw it up. I trusted Sean to go get it.”
On a night where no individual Blue Devil excelled statistically, Foster provided a standout performance on offense, co-leading Duke with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting from the floor and a 4-of-4 clip from the charity stripe. The Harrisburg, N.C., native’s personal highlight came in the second half, where he turned defense into offense through a steal on Burton, followed by his own dunk.
On the other side of the ball, Duke was forced to play Filipowski sparingly, as the Westtown, N.Y., native faced constant foul trouble, playing limited minutes in the opening frame. Enter Mitchell. The sophomore played one of his best defensive games of the season, throwing off shot after shot and earning two steals.
“I think being a leader on defense is just something I do naturally,” Mitchell said. “I don’t even think I was up to my standard.”
Scheyer put it even more simply: “Mark can guard anybody.”
In addition to Mitchell, center and co-captain Ryan Young played a strong game in relief of Filipowski. Earning 16 minutes despite also picking up four fouls, the graduate student scored six points while adding five rebounds and two blocks.
“We just had guys making [aggressive] plays,” Young said, noting the aforementioned Stewart sequence. “These are the kind of things that take a good team over the hump to become a great team, and that’s what we need to win.”
In comparison with these solid performances by Duke’s depth, Filipowski had an inconsistent game that eventually showed flashes of his high ceiling. After a rough first half featuring two turnovers and two personal fouls in only seven minutes of play, the sophomore got to work early in the second period. Fighting Irish center Kebba Nije blocked his layup, but Filipowski responded with an offensive rebound - one of four in the half - and a jumper to extend Duke’s lead to 13 with 18:39 left. The sophomore used his size, strength and arsenal of post moves to draw fouls, which led to six attempts from the charity stripe during the period.
“I thought it was a great turning point for [Filipowski] tonight to be able to play through foul trouble,” Scheyer said. “Hopefully that can give him some confidence.”
Despite closing out solidly, Filipowski’s overall subpar performance was not lost on Scheyer.
“We need him to be better … the standard that I have for him, and [that] he has for himself, he knows he can be better,” Scheyer said. “He [was] only in there for half the game, and so that’s something we have to figure out.”
While Duke earned a comfortable win without Filipowski on his A-game, its low outside shooting clip — just 4-of-18 from beyond the arc — will need to be improved down the line. For now, the Blue Devils can hold their heads high, knowing that even if their star big man falters, the rest of the team can, and will, show up and show out.
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