Duke’s season comes to an abrupt end, and with it a painful lesson in toughness over the dangers of youth

It wasn’t until the middle of the first half here on Saturday afternoon before the Duke players came back to the bench during the break, looking tired and a bit trapped, and received a message from their coaches that became a refrain in what turned out to be the final game of the season.

“You must be strong!” Blue Devils assistant coach Jay Lucas shouted into the crowd with an insistent and pleading tone, as if trying to imbue those before him with that power.

“We have to be tougher,” said first-year head coach John Shire, calmly. He repeated it again, shaking his head: “We did Owns to be stricter. “

That was largely the theme of Duke’s 65-52 season-ending defeat against Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. power. hardness. It wasn’t as if the Blue Devils were completely devoid of those characteristics. They fought. They were crushed. In moments, they played with the requisite grit. Just not all the time, not with enough of it to match Tennessee.

Of all the numbers that could sum Duke’s last game of the season down to one factor—nine three-pointers made by Tennessee, 15 turnovers committed by Duke, or that the Blue Devils shot but seven free throws in a game that sometimes resembles a wrestling match—it was probably the most important. She: 21.8 and 19.

The first of those was Tennessee’s average starting five on Saturday. second average duke. This was not a men vs. Boys, exactly, but it’s grown men versus men. who have just entered adulthood. The Volunteers did not have a rookie under the age of 20, and the starters included two 22-year-olds and Aros Plavsek, 24. Meanwhile, Duke has four starting teenagers and Jeremy Roach, the 21-year-old junior guard who is the oldest statesman for the team.

With age comes experience and strength, and the Volunteers have punished the Blue Devils with both. Shire and his coaching staff felt it from the start — from the very first play, in fact, when the elbow hit Kyle Filipowski, Duke’s freshman forward, after he went up for a rebound. Duke’s coaches yelled for the review that didn’t come, and moments later, Filipowski once again found himself on the other end of the blow, this one that left him with a cut under his left eye.

For a second or two, the bleeding Filipowski looked like Bloody (Eric) Montross from the 1992 Duke-North Carolina game in Chapel Hill. The difference: Montross was young at the time, accustomed to the drama and intensity of college basketball on the greatest stages. Meanwhile, Filipowski is a freshman who was playing in his second game in the NCAA Tournament – after he vomited a few minutes into his first game, Thursday night.

“It didn’t affect me, keep it up mentally,” said Filipovsky, calm, without looking up. “But you can’t have a break, this whole year.”

He was referring to other instances this season in which he was on the other side of the physicality that left him, or the Duke, as the only one in pain. If Mike Krzyzewski had still been around, he would no doubt have been going on for a while on Saturday about Tennessee’s steadfastness, about how the Volunteers were “grown men” — one of the catchphrases Krzyzewski has written down over the years. Scheyer, his successor, put it this way about the intensity: “It really felt like a Sweet 16, Elite Eight game.”

It did, with an empty seat at the Amway Center, and with the Blue Devils and Volunteers exchanging blows, both figurative and literal—even though Tennessee handled a lot of them. It didn’t help that Duke played without Mark Mitchell, another freshman who, at 6-foot-8, was undoubtedly absent while nursing a knee injury he sustained in practice Friday. Mitchell had started every game and if he had started on Saturday he would have made a difference.

but the difference? Probably not, against a Tennessee team that looked a lot like Coach Rick Barnes’ sparkling Clemson team of the late ’90s — the ones that played with all the finesse and aesthetic beauty of a dump truck. Love Barnes’ favorite playing style or disdain, he has at least remained committed to the act. For decades now, his teams have been showing up and challenging opponents to match their physical abilities, and the Blue Devils just couldn’t.

They were hit in the face, literally, early on and then ended the first half with some of their most unproductive play of the season – a record drought of nearly five minutes; four consecutive fouls from the field; Ownership after ownership in which they showed their youth. Three times in the second half Duke narrowed Tennessee’s lead to four points, but never during the last nine minutes and never fell short of four points. Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamehua, meanwhile, mostly did what he wanted after halftime, when he scored 23 of his 27 points.

You won’t see Nkamhoua, one of the four seniors in the Volunteers’ starting lineup, near the top of NBA draft prospects. It wasn’t one person and act or even two or three people. On Saturday, he looked like the old guy at the Y, the school kids who might have more natural talent but not the wit of someone who’s been around a while and seen a few things.

That was the game, basically: Tennessee’s experience and power versus Duke’s talent and potential. The loss ended Scheyer’s first season, where there was a lot to like.

Duke won the ACC Championship. She reached a level of defense that Duke hadn’t played in years. On Saturday, the Blue Devils went on a 10-game winning streak, becoming a fashionable pick to reach Houston and the Final Four, if not to win the whole thing. In recent days, there’s been an almost sense of inevitability about this Duke team, as if it’s destined for something bigger.

And then it ended. quickly. This is March.

One night, you look indomitable, and for good measure, in an easy first-round win over Oral Roberts. Two nights later, you’ve suddenly lost a starter and wonder where it all went wrong. At least it wasn’t hard to understand for Duke.

For programs of their caliber, the challenge in this environment will always be balancing talent that makes the difference and building a team. For years, Duke has been so talented that its best players only stay for one year. The list is basically transformed annually. Between the Blue Devils and the Volunteers, this Duke team will undoubtedly put more players into the NBA. However, it is Tennessee that will move.

was older. harder. more powerful.

Tennessee was on its way to New York City, and Duke was on its way back to Durham, without peeling any of the memorabilia off the locker room walls, as some losing teams do to preserve the memory of the month of March. No, those Blue Devils expected the trip to last much longer. They certainly learned some lessons from Saturday’s defeat. Now the question becomes: How many of them will continue to carry these lessons forward.

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