It was men against boys.
Tennessee started four seniors and Duke started four freshmen in Saturday afternoon’s NCAA tournament East Region second-round game, and experience paid monstrous dividends as the fourth-seeded Volunteers wore down the fifth-seeded Blue Devils 65-52 at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
Three of the veteran Vols starters — Olivier Nkamhoua, Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James — combined for 48 points and 15 rebounds while committing just one turnover.
“Knowing that they had a lot of freshmen, we knew that if we came in and applied more pressure and got tough and physical that they would have to deal with it,” Nkamhoua said afterward in a news conference. “We said before the game that we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game.
“We were going to see if they were ready for it.”
Nkamhoua picked the perfect time to produce the most memorable contest of his career, scoring 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range. His third 3 transpired with 4:17 remaining and gave Tennessee a 59-48 lead, its biggest at that point.
Tennessee outrebounded Duke 35-30 and forced the Blue Devils into 15 turnovers as the five-time national champions matched their lowest point total in an NCAA tournament game.
“Olivier played great basketball today, and certainly Santi did what he does every time out,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said, “but it was just a total team effort.”
Tennessee (25-10) will travel to New York City for a Thursday night Sweet 16 matchup against the winner of Sunday evening’s Cinderella pairing of ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic and 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, which upset top-seeded Purdue on Friday. The Vols have reached the Sweet 16 for the ninth time but are just 1-7 in their previous trips, advancing to the Elite Eight only in 2010.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, concluded a 27-9 season that included the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title and a 10-game winning streak until Saturday.
“We ran into the wrong team on the wrong day,” Duke first-year coach Jon Scheyer said.
The Blue Devils collected 3-pointers from Jeremy Roach and Dariq Whitehead in the first two minutes and 15 seconds of Saturday’s game, while Vols senior forward Uros Plavsic was called for two obvious fouls on 7-foot freshman center Kyle Filipowski. That resulted in a 6-2 Duke advantage, but the Blue Devils sustained a blow six minutes into the slugfest, when Filipowski took a Jonas Aidoo elbow below the eye on an Aidoo rebound.
“We play in a league where a premium is placed on physicality,” Barnes said, “but I don’t like the way it started with Uros. I don’t like any part of that. As physical as we want to be, we don’t want to foul. We tried to get more of an up-tempo game, because they’re very good at executing in the half court.
“Part of the physicality was trying to bring fatigue into it by playing a quicker game.”
Tennessee briefly capitalized with Filipowski getting treatment, taking a 13-10 lead on a Julian Phillips dunk, but Roach and Whitehead connected from long range again to spark a 9-0 run for a 19-13 advantage with eight minutes before halftime. Vescovi ended Duke’s run with a 3 to quickly make it a one-possession game again, but that basket ignited a 14-2 run to close the half.
Tyreke Key connected on a 3 in the final 90 seconds, and an Aidoo layup off an assist by Vescovi made it 27-21 at the break.
“That was big,” Nkamhoua said. “To have that kind of boost brings a lot of energy and good momentum.”
The Vols pounced for a 30-21 lead 15 seconds into the second half on a James 3-pointer and maintained a steady advantage, grabbing a 41-33 lead on a Vescovi 3 at the 12:34 mark and extending it to 51-42 on a Nkamhoua 3 with 8:07 left.
“This is no hit on any of the teams we’ve played,” Filipowski said, “but Tennessee was really physical today.”
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.