Duke’s first season since the retirement of legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, when the No. 5 seed Blue Devils fell 65-52 to No. 4 seed Tennessee in a bruising struggle. The Volunteers got 27 points from Olivier Nkamhoua and used their trademark physical defense to frustrate a freshman-laden Duke squad.
Tennessee will play either No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic or No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Duke’s first season under coach Jon Scheyer ends with a 27-9 record.
The Blue Devils entered with the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 10 games, a stretch which included an ACC Tournament title and a resounding first-round victory over No. 12 seed Oral Roberts on Thursday. But Duke struggled to find a rhythm against the bruising Volunteers.
Tennessee center Uros Plavsic picked up two fouls for his physical play against Duke forward Kyle Filipowski in the game’s first two minutes and 12 seconds. Within the first six minutes, Filipowski was receiving medical attention on the bench for a bleeding wound under his eye following a shot to the face during the battle for a rebound. It was an apt sign of how the game would be played.
The loss dropped Duke to 5-8 all-time against the SEC in NCAA Tournament games, leaving Pittsburgh and Miami as the ACC’s only teams with a chance at reaching the Sweet 16.
Nkamhoua entered as just a 31.3% 3-point shooter for the season and had never made more than two 3-pointers in a game during his four-year career. But when the Volunteers needed him most, he stepped up and matched his career high. Nkamhoua made 3-of-4 attempts from beyond the arc and totaled 23 of his team’s 38 points in the second half.
The Volunteers played elite defense all season but often struggled offensively in key situations, especially amid the loss of starting point guard Zakai Zeigler to a season-ending knee injury. But with Nkamhoua in peak form, Tennessee shot 48.1% in the second half and made 6 of 11 attempts from 3-point range.
The Blue Devils played without starting small forward Mark Mitchell after he suffered a knee injury in practice Friday. He was replaced by fellow freshman Dariq Whitehead in the starting lineup. Whitehead provided eight points in 33 minutes, but they all came in the first half. As the game wore on, Duke’s lack of depth stood out.
The Blue Devils were outscored 15-2 in bench points and got just 22 minutes from their bench. Bench players for Tennessee logged 76 minutes, and just one starter played more than 30 minutes for the Vols. All five Duke starters logged 33 or more minutes.
With No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson stunning the college basketball world by defeating No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday, the East Regional is officially up for grabs. The Volunteers will have a golden opportunity to match the program’s deepest-ever NCAA Tournament run by making the Elite Eight next week if they can get past the winner of Sunday’s game between FAU and FDU. From there, potential opponents would include Marquette, Kansas State, Kentucky and Michigan State.
The Volunteers finished the regular season just 5-7 over their final 12 games and seemed destined for an early exit from the Big Dance amid the injury to Zeigler. But all of the sudden, they are in the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in program history with a great opportunity to advance even further.