ORLANDO, Fla. — Tennessee is headed to the Sweet 16 because it loves playing in “the mud.”
That’s the Vols’ term for the tough, physical and sometimes ugly style of basketball they play. They don’t apologize or make excuses for it. It’s who they are.
“That’s what we do,” forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “We’re a tough, hard-nosed team. That’s how we play everybody.”
Duke coach Jon Scheyer talked about that on Friday heading into Saturday’s second-round NCAA tournament matchup at Amway Center. But knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier, and the Vols battered the Blue Devils throughout their 65-52 victory.
“Knowing that they had a lot of freshmen, we knew that if we come in and apply more pressure and be tough and physical, then they would have to deal with it,” Nkamhoua said. “What we were saying before the game the whole time is we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game and see if they were ready for it.”
The box score doesn’t accurately portray just how physical things were. Duke forward Kyle Filipowski had to leave the game for a few moments in the first half after taking an elbow in the face from Tennessee forward Jonas Aidoo that left a mark on his left cheek that was still visible after the game.
Tennessee held Duke to just 21 first-half points, the fewest first-half points the Blue Devils have scored in an NCAA tournament game, and its defense held the Blue Devils scoreless for a stretch at the end of the first half and into the second that lasted 6 minutes, 58 seconds.
“They did a great job with making passes difficult,” Scheyer said. “They contested, they switched a lot. It was hard to run our offense. … You have to really work for everything in a game like this. You have to work to get open. You have to work on your drives, and that’s what it really comes down to.
“… I thought we ran out of gas down the stretch.”
Tennessee’s game plan was to exploit its opponent’s age and size. The Vols start four seniors, while Duke starts four freshmen (Mark Mitchell, another freshman, didn’t play because of a knee injury). Duke freshmen Filipowski and Dereck Lively II are 7-footers, but both weigh 230 pounds and got pushed around a bit by Tennessee seniors Uros Plavsic (7-1, 265) and Aidoo (6-11, 241).
By the end of the game, the fatigue the Duke players were experiencing from all the pounding and the extra work to get open was easy to see. The Blue Devils managed just four points in the game’s final 6:04. The 52 points were a season low and the fewest the program has scored in an NCAA tournament loss.
“You want to get people playing at your pace,” said Nkamhoua, who tied his career high with 27 points, including 23 in the second half. “It just guarantees us that we’re going to be in our element.
“So when we get guys stuck and we start making players do things that they’re not used to doing, we wear them down and we just keep wearing them down. I feel like I said this earlier in the year where I said that people got to be ready for us where it’s not going to be just one hit; it’s going to be continued hits. And then the way you keep up with us is if you can just keep taking those hits and keep playing that tough game for 40 minutes and we’re going to bring them down to the mud for 40 minutes. It’s tough, and some guys can hang and some guys can’t.”
Duke clearly couldn’t on Saturday.
“Aside from Purdue, I’d probably say that Tennessee was the next, if not the most, physical team that we’ve played all year,” Filipowski said. “That’s no hit on any of the teams we’ve played. That was just saying how physical Tennessee was today.”