DALLAS – Duke has just taken down top-seeded Houston at American Airlines Center on Friday to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s South Region championship game.

But in the immediate aftermath, Kyle Filipowski’s thoughts were of Tennessee.

Not as a future opponent. But as the team that knocked the Blue Devils out in the 2nd round a year ago.
The bigger, stronger Volunteers manhandled Jon Scheyer’s team physically, leaving it open to the worst kind of criticism that can be thrown at a big-time college basketball team.

That they were soft.

It’s a label that has continued to haunt Flipowski, Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor and the others who played in that 2023 game as they worked their way through the current season hoping for a shot of redemption.

It’s an opportunity that presented itself on Friday.

Just as Tennessee did a year ago, the Cougars knocked the 4th-seeded Blue Devils back early with their physicality around the rim and defensive pressure on the perimeter.

This time, though, they fought back. In a big way.

Sure they got a break when Houston lost its best player, Jamal Shead, to an ankle injury midway through the 1st half. But when they got punched in the mouth, they punched back.

They flexed their muscle both physically and mentally and matched Houston blow-for-blow in grinding out a 54-51 victory to set up an Elite Eight showdown with ACC rival NC State. It was a victory that finally exorcized some old ghosts while ending Duke into an Elite Eight showdown on Sunday against Triangle rival NC State.

“Going back to the 2nd round against Tennessee, this game right here was that same type of game,” said Filipowski, his team’s leading scorer and rebounder with 16 and 9. “Just seeing the togetherness, how we didn’t quit out there tonight, that really shows the growth from last year. We remember how upset we were last year and we didn’t want to repeat that again.”

As much motivation as Duke’s players took from their Tennessee experience, their coach found his inspiration in a different, NCAA Tournament memory.

One that started just as badly as this one did when his team fell behind by as many as 7 early, but ended with a much more positive outcome.

“It was like deja vu 2 years ago when we played Texas Tech,” Scheyer said, referring to the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 victory that helped send them on to the Final Four in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season.

Just as Coach K did that night in 2022, Scheyer called an early timeout to calm down his troops after Houston – a 4.5-point favorite according to ESPN Bet sportsbookjumped out to an 8-0 headstart.

Either that or shake some life into it.

“I just told them to settle in, man. Just settle in,” he said. “We were doing things we haven’t done before. So let’s just regroup and come back.”

It’s hard to quantify toughness with a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper. The closest statistical measurements come under the headings of rebounding and points in the paint.

And in both of those, the Blue Devils more than held their own.

They outrebounded the bigger Cougars 34-30, including a 13-10 edge on the offensive glass. And they played their opponent to a stalemate in the paint. Both teams finished the gritty, low-scoring slugfest with 26 points around the rim.

It was the intensity with which Duke defended, however, that provided the most accurate depiction of just how physically invested it was.

That was best summed up by Proctor, who with 2:35 remaining and his team clinching to a 52-48 lead, rode Houston’s LJ Cryer off the ball, dove to the floor to retrieve it and passed ahead to a teammate for a key stop.

Not only did the Blue Devils get winning performances out of the regulars in their rotation, they also got a huge lift off the bench from Ryan Young. The graduate big man contributed only 2 points and 4 rebounds.

But he provided a huge, effective physical presence in helping Filipowski defend 6-foot-7, 235-pound J’Wan Roberts and 6-8, 240-pound Ja’Vier Francis. Duke outscored the Cougars by 18 points during the 23 minutes he was on the court.

“We wouldn’t have won that game without Ryan,” Filipowski said. “We wouldn’t have won that game without anyone. We’ve all got roles on this team and we execute them so well.”

It’s a buy-in is only one of the ways in which this team has grown over the past 12 months.

Another is the fact that this time, the Blue Devils were determined not to let an opponent push them around.

And out of the tournament.