ORLANDO, Fla. — Olivier Nkamhoua was a little hesitant to enter Tennessee's postgame locker room after a career performance against powerhouse Duke in the NCAA Tournament. So Uros Plavsic picked him up and delivered him to teammates waiting to douse him with water.
It was a fitting payback considering Nkamhoua had carried the Volunteers much of the afternoon.
Nkamhoua tied his career high with 27 points, including 13 straight for Tennessee during a decisive stretch in the second half, and the fourth-seeded Volunteers bullied Duke 65-52 on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.
“We're a tough, hard-nosed team,” Nkamhoua said. "That's how we play everybody. But knowing 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.
“What we were saying before the game 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.”
They weren't, and Tennessee's experience — the Vols start four seniors — proved too much for Duke's highly touted freshmen.
Santiago Vescovi added 14 points and five assists for Tennessee (25-10), which ended Duke’s 10-game winning streak and sent first-year coach Jon Scheyer — charged with replacing Mike Krzyzewski — home after just two NCAA Tournament games. Not sure Coach K could have done anything different to combat these Vols, who used a level of “bully ball” to send the fifth-seeded Blue Devils (27-9) packing.
“We feel we’re at our best when we can do that," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Nkamhoua made 10 of 13 shots and put an exclamation mark on Tennessee’s victory with an emphatic slam with 1:15 remaining. It prompted Vols fans to start chanting and sent Duke fans scrambling for the exits.
“You have to really work for everything in a game like this,” said Scheyer, whose team turned the ball over 15 times and made just 6 of 22 from 3-point range. “You have to work to get open.”
Tennessee advanced to face Florida Atlantic or Fairleigh Dickinson on Thursday at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Duke didn’t handle Tennessee’s imposing style very well all afternoon. The Volunteers set the tone early, clearly wanting to push around Kyle Filipowski and get their hands in the faces of guards Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor.
Vols big man Uros Plavsic picked up two offensive fouls in the first four minutes, both going against Filipowski. Duke’s 7-footer later took an elbow to his face and ended up with a small cut under his left eye.
Proctor struggled to inbound the ball several times, getting a five-second call, turning it over once, and nearly giving it up again. Roach had even more issues, picking up his fourth foul with 15 minutes remaining and finishing with five turnovers.
“We prepare for a dogfight every game," Nkamhoua said. “When we get people playing our game, it just guarantees that we're going to be in our element."
It helped that the Vols took much better care of the ball than they did in their first-round victory against Louisiana-Lafayette. They turned it over just nine times, half as many as they did Thursday, and their fewest since point guard Zakai Zeigler sustained a season-ending knee injury last month.
Proctor led Duke with 16 points and six assists. Roach and Filipowski chipped in 13 points apiece. Dereck Lively II was scoreless but had 11 rebounds and two blocks.
“I thought we ran out of gas down the stretch," Scheyer said.
Duke: The Blue Devils played without 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward Mark Mitchell, who was a late scratch because of a knee injury. It's unlikely Mitchell would have made a difference, but he surely would have helped down low against the Vols.
Tennessee: The Vols stumbled into the tournament having lost six of 10, but now they have a winning streak and have clearly re-established their identity as a big, physical, deep, defensive-minded team capable of giving anyone fits.
Duke: The Blue Devils turn their attention to what happens with their talent-laden team and the NBA. All eyes will be on freshmen Dereck Lively II, Filipowski, and Proctor and their pending decisions.
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