CATS CRADLED: No. 4-seed Duke men's basketball grinds Vermont down, takes opening game of NCAA tournament

Sophomore forward Mark Mitchell pushes his way inside the post against Vermont.
Sophomore forward Mark Mitchell pushes his way inside the post against Vermont.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Tyrese Proctor ran over to Duke’s bench just moments into the start of the matchup, demanding an empty cup. There was blood on his lips, but he spit it out and got back in position like nothing had happened.

The ever-level-headed point guard kept things steady, even when Vermont’s Nick Fiorillo accidentally hit him in the mouth right as the game began. Maybe it was the faint taste of blood that helped him at the arc when Duke needed him most.

The last time Vermont won three consecutive conference titles, the Catamounts upset a No. 4 seed in the first round of March Madness. The last time Duke played a first-round game in New York, it lost. On a 10-game win streak with that shiny new conference title to its name, Vermont was trying to take down an ACC goliath. No. 4-seed Duke, meanwhile, was trying not to be the latest victim of a classic March upset. 

It wasn’t, and it didn’t even play that well — at least not on offense. Its fundamentals simply shone through stronger than the 13th-seeded Catamounts’ could, culminating in a 64-47 victory behind double-digit points from four Blue Devil starters and solid defense from them all.

"Really big defensive stops to hold [Vermont] to 47 points," said head coach Jon Scheyer after his win. "I don't think there's one way to skin a cat with how you put together a team," (pun, presumably, not intended).

Vermont tallied its seventh foul just 10 minutes into the first half, giving Duke plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the charity stripe with the bonus. And it did, shooting 20-for-29 at the line — roughly a quarter of its points by the final buzzer.

Despite a couple of electric jump-shot arms showing up for Vermont, the big guys on the Blue Devil roster kept things moving in the first period. Kyle Filipowski caught eight boards while Mark Mitchell slammed 11 points into the basket. The 6-foot-9 forward made sure to fill the net from up close, hitting dunk after dunk after dunk — five, by the end of the game — on his way to earning 15 of Duke’s total points.

"He did what it took to win," Mitchell said of Filipowski. "He played good defense." Mitchell had a point.

The trouble for the Blue Devils, who couldn’t sustain a double-digit lead for longer than two-and-a-half total minutes in the first half, was that smart shots weren’t going where they were supposed to. This was where their fundamentals failed. Proctor kept missing layups — rare, for him — while Jared McCain had the same problem with his usually reliable 3-point arm. The Catamounts, on the other hand, were connecting on 45.7% of their field goals, mostly thanks to graduate guard Aaron Deloney and junior guard Shamir Bogues, who managed to put space between their shooting arms and head coach Jon Scheyer’s man-on-man defensive scheme.

"They spread you, they drive you, they post you," Scheyer said of the Catamounts.

Think Cameron Indoor Stadium gets loud? Try the Barclays Center, which seats nearly 18,000 people and happens to be close to Vermont and in a city filled with Duke graduates. When the second half began with the Blue Devils up by just five, both sides of the arena went wild: Duke fans screamed at the swish of a McCain three, while the Catamount faithful hollered every time the team in royal blue missed a basket.

But whether it was the taunts of excited Vermont fans or the dedicated chants from Marcelle and Laury Scheyer (Scheyer’s wife and mom, respectively), something got to Duke — specifically its guards — with a quarter of the game left on the clock. 

"What happens," Scheyer said, "is all of a sudden, halfway through the game, you feel it even more."

Vermont kept fouling as Duke kept attempting to shoot, and enough of its tries landed to keep a relatively steady lead. With five minutes on the clock, it was starting to look like a relatively simple Duke victory against a team that had more of an edge than it should have, because of the vocal half of the Barclays Center that really hoped it would pull an upset.

Right before the game began, McCain took two deep breaths. His eyes were closed as he stood on the March Madness floor decal with his back to Grant Hill at the broadcast table. He cracked his neck. When a first-half technical foul on Vermont sent him to the stripe, he missed his first shot. The freshman in his first Big Dance was stuck in his own head.

Two hours later, his hands rested on his hips as he stood at half court. McCain casually high-fived Proctor and watched Roach make the team’s 18th, then 19th, free throws to seal the deal. He took a seat on the bench and let Spencer Hubbard play out the last thirty seconds while he smiled and chugged his Powerade. Vermont hadn't scored in four minutes, and all was well.

"Jared is built differently," Scheyer said. "He's made for these moments."

The Blue Devils have a day of rest in the Big Apple before returning to the Barclays Center Sunday for a round of 32 battle with one of Wisconsin or James Madison.

Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports Managing Editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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