Damn hell: The Blue Devils’ NCAA tournament run ends in the hands (and elbows) of Tennessee

ORLANDO, Fla. – There is no discernible pattern on the bloodstains on the thin green carpet in Duke’s dressing room. There are far too many to count, at least quickly: a small semicircle of blobs in the center of the room, a larger blob of them near Kyle Filipowski’s locker. But they, like the silence in that undersized dressing room, tell the story.

The simple version is this: Duke’s season is over thanks to a 65-52 loss to No. 4 Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Jon Scheyer’s opening team – for all their accomplishments, the ACC Tournament Championship and a “matter considered closed” bar a fitting regular season – didn’t make it past the first weekend. That can only be seen as disappointing given the team’s 10-game winning streak, which begins on Saturday. On paper, this team had all the makings of a trendy Final Four selection, especially given the friendly narrowness of Madison Square Garden just a win away.

So close.

“It hurts. It burns,” said Scheyer. “It will stay that way for a while.”

That’s partly because, in many ways, Tennessee is Duke’s reflection. According to KenPom, the Blue Devils were the No. 1 height average nationally this season; The volunteers, on the other hand, were No. 1 in effective terms. Both teams boast top 10 defenses and more distance than a wood. The difference? Rick Barnes’ team — particularly without sophomore security guard Zakai Zeigler, who is done for the year with a cruciate ligament tear — starts with four seniors. Scheyer, on the other hand, starts with four newcomers. Well, that meant less and less as the season wore on, but there’s still something to be said for going up against a bunch of old, gigantic, grizzled grown men. “It’s definitely the most physical game we’ve had all season,” said junior captain Jeremy Roach. “We felt like we knew that.”

However, knowing it and experiencing it first hand are two completely different things. And Tennessee literally came swinging out of the tunnel. Less than a minute into the game, 7-foot-1 center Uros Plavsic swung his elbow back at Filipowski while scoring a rebound and immediately set the tone for the next 39 minutes. That intensity escalated to another level after just under six minutes when Filipowski caught an elbow under his left eye, leaving a fat laceration and blood spattering all over the hardwood.

By then, the typically clear boundary between boxing and basketball had been blurred. (Appropriately, Duke coach Jose Fonseca tended to Filipowski’s face like a certified in-ring cutman throughout the game.) It was basically a fistfight played on a basketball floor.

Duke, as Mike Krzyzewski would have said to everyone around him as he watched on TV, was “repelled”. This was especially true given the team’s surprising last-second line-up change; Freshman striker Mark Mitchell — the 6ft-8 defensive stopper with a 7ft wingspan, one of two starters in each game alongside Filipowski — was instead ruled questionable with a knee injury. Scheyer said after the game that Mitchell tweaked it in practice on Friday. Mitchell was still doing warm-ups to play before he and the staff jointly realized he didn’t have the right burst. That was five minutes before the tip. “It was a bit hectic,” said Scheyer, “just before the game.”

Despite Mitchell’s absence, Duke recovered from the early belly punch dealt by Tennessee and went midway through the first half on a 9-0 run to make a six. As has been the history of this team all season, they fought back and got better, in real time on Saturday. But the Vols didn’t want to walk away willingly, and when Santiago Vescovi – who finished with 14 points and made four 3s – countered that run with a three, he turned the momentum back towards the Tennessees. The rest of the first half was really a tough fight, as evidenced by the 10 combined fouls in the first 13 minutes and the frantic attacks from both teams. At the break, Duke had made as many fouls (eight) as hoops, along with 11 turnovers – and remained scoreless for two seconds at the break for just under seven minutes.

Subtly showing something that might show more clearly just how disruptive Tennessee’s defense has been: Duke hit an equal number of 2s and 3s in the first half (11), although at no point this season has it been the team’s recipe for success .

“They did a great job of not dragging us into our actions and not letting us switch sides,” said Ryan Young. “For us to be effective we have to be a team that has to move the ball, get the ball in the post, look at different actions and certainly in the first half – I thought the second half was a little different – I think , we struggled to get to our regular sets and what we do best.”

To make matters worse, Roach – who finished with 13 points and made half of the team’s six 3s – recorded his third personal foul with 5:58 left in the first half. When he got his fourth just under five minutes into the second half after pinching his left ankle, Scheyer was really in trouble.

Here we were, his team on the ropes, his most versatile defender, his veteran captain in dire straits, and the season dragged by.

“It’s tough when you can’t be as aggressive as you want,” Roach said. “You think you have one more foul to give and knowing these umpires you’ll probably get your fifth if you touch them.”

Duke players leave after losing to Tennessee at the end of the season. (Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

Partly to protect Roach — and partly because Tennessee were too tough to stop in the paint — Scheyer eventually moved to a 2-3 zone that the team had just 3.8 percent of its possession on Saturday, according to Synergy had played. First possession in the 2-3 zone resulted in a shot clock injury. Success.

And then came Olivier Nkamhoua.

When Tennessee hit Texas back on Jan. 5, the 6-foot-9 Nkamhoua was the story, finishing with 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting. Since then, he’s mostly been a role player, someone who’s racked up 15 3-pointers all season. But as soon as Duke zoned in, he absolutely took over, draining three of his four 3-point attempts of varying depth and discouragement. At one point, he scored 13 straight points for Tennessee.

Duke had no answer for Nkamhoua.

Or at least none that plays – that answer stuck next to assistant coach Amile Jefferson on the bench. Whichever players defect next, with Mitchell absent – an ideal Nkamhoua defender unavailable – what-if-Duke fans won’t stop the debate

“It’s a huge impact. He’s a beginner. He’s our brother,” said freshman Dereck Lively II, who became the first player since 1960 to have at least 10 rebounds without attempting a shot in an NCAA tournament game. “He’s always there on defense and making sure he’s giving us his best.”

Instead, Nkamhoua almost single-handedly smothered Duke’s comeback. Despite 14 points from Tyrese Proctor in the second half and Roach struggling with injuries and ailing problems, the Blue Devils just couldn’t make the stops needed to advance into the Sweet 16. When the buzzer finally sounded, the team left — somewhat stoically, some in tears — to Rocky Top, who is playing in the background of Tennessee’s band. It was an odd kind of finality for a short trip to the NCAA tournament. Mitchell walked, fists clenched, steps ahead of Lively, who could only stare straight ahead.

In the training room off the locker room, Mitchell sat on a table – still dressed in his full jersey – hunched over, head in hands, an unopened blue Powerade to his right. For his teammates who had to face the reporters, the reality of what had happened was gradually arriving. Dariq Whitehead, who started in Mitchell’s place and scored eight points (but didn’t attempt a shot in the second half), was already in tears when the doors opened. When asked how he was feeling, the newcomer swallowed and choked back the only words he could: “Uh, a little hurt.” Young, one of the few veteran players on the team, steeled himself for interviews but got glassy-eyed , when the cameras stopped rolling. Jacob Grandison, who is ineligible to play, was quiet for a while… until he had to take his jersey off for the last time.

Lively, one of the more outwardly emotional players on the team, summed it all up as best he could:

“Horrible. You don’t want to go out like that,” he said. “You don’t want to end your story here.”

(Top Photo by Dukes Kyle Filipowski: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)


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