'So good for us': Young emerges as Duke's unlikely — and invaluable — hero in Sweet 16 upset of Houston

Ryan Young battles with a Houston defender at the rim.
Ryan Young battles with a Houston defender at the rim.

DALLAS—The first three minutes of Duke’s Sweet 16 game against Houston could not have gone worse. 

It was deja vu all over again for the Blue Devils, who saw an ultra-aggressive team pounce on them and open an 8-0 lead before they could catch their breath — an eerie reminder of last year’s second-round loss to Tennessee. Head coach Jon Scheyer needed an answer, and he needed it fast.

Enter Ryan Young, a sixth-year graduate student known for his hustle — but certainly not his athleticism. The unlikeliest of heroes against what was the most physically imposing team the Blue Devils have faced this season, Young helped settle the team’s nerves and bring Duke back into the game. At the end of the first half, the Blue Devils had built a one-point lead, and Young was +12 in the box score. By the end of the game, he was a team-high +18.

In a game decided by just three points, that is not only remarkable, but invaluable.

Scheyer’s bench has thinned significantly since freshman guard Caleb Foster suffered an ankle injury against Wake Forest, ruling him out for the rest of the season. That may be an understatement; in its last five games heading into the Sweet 16, Duke ranked 361st out of 362 Division-I teams in bench points per game, per CBBAnalytics.

Stars win games in March, and the Blue Devils’ trio of senior Jeremy Roach and sophomores Kyle Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor made some huge plays down the stretch against Houston. But a team cannot solely rely on its top players, especially against a tire-you-down squad like the Cougars. Duke badly needed one of its role players to step up, and Young answered the call.

“We wouldn't have won that game without Ryan,” Filipowski said after the game.

“His defense, his physicality to match what they do. I thought that was a big difference in the game,” Scheyer added.

One of the trademarks of Houston’s play style is its relentlessness on the offensive glass. The Cougars rank 11th in the nation in offensive rebounds per game, and until Young checked in, they seemed ready to bully the Blue Devils on the boards. 

The experienced big man was able to box out Houston’s forwards — sometimes multiple at the same time — and clean things up down low. His presence in the paint also took some of the burden off Filipowski’s shoulders, freeing the 7-footer up to leap for rebounds of his own. 

Ryan Young boxes out under the basket before a rebound against Houston.
Ryan Young boxes out under the basket before a rebound against Houston.

Once the Cougars could no longer consistently rely on multiple shots per possession, Duke was able to lock them down defensively. Especially after senior guard Jamal Shead was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury, Houston could not find any rhythm on offense — finishing just 20-for-49 from the field. While this was certainly a collective effort, Young’s time on the floor was the spark that lit the Blue Devils’ defensive fire.

If Young’s rebounding was a spark, then his dunk early in the second half — just his third of the season — was an explosion. The 24-year-old proved he could still rock the rim, catching a pass from Filipowski and finishing through contact for an emphatic finish.

“It surprised me a little bit. If I see a guy coming down the lane like that trying to block [me], it's typically a pump fake, but I felt good,” Young said about the play.

While his dunk will likely end up on some highlight reels, the former Northwestern transfer’s bigger impact on Duke’s offense was again his effect on his teammates. Without Young in the game, the Blue Devils set almost all of their ball screens using Filipowski, and the Cougars guarded them well. Ball handlers got double-teamed hard and had no easy targets to find for an escape.

However, with Young setting the screen, Proctor and Roach could look up and see Filipowski waiting for an outlet pass. Once things started rolling and Filipowski was able to make plays either to score or pass, Duke suddenly started seeing much better looks. Even when Young was forced to miss time in the second half with foul trouble, the Blue Devils had built enough confidence on offense to continue to work through Filipowski without losing the ball to traps and doubles.

“We all [have] roles on this team, and we execute them so well. But I mean, Ryan came in, he was ready. He knows what to do. He knows his job so well,” Filipowski said. “And it's so good for us.”

The key moments of Friday's win — Roach’s clutch shots down the stretch, Filipowski’s creative 3-pointers or Proctor’s huge defensive stops — are individual feats, just like Young’s efforts which helped enable the Blue Devils to take control. But they are also a product of a team, five players buying into their roles and doing what it takes to win. That’s what it takes to win a national championship, a feat Duke is now just three wins away from.

Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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