Mitchell’s dunk, ex-walk-on’s 3-pointer make even a Louisville blowout worth watching

Maybe he was just angry. Only a few moments earlier, Mark Mitchell had tried to throw down a furious tomahawk dunk, taking off from a great distance after breaking the press by himself, only to run into traffic and bounce it off the back of the rim.

When he got the ball again, under the basket this time, he didn’t mess around, even with his back to the bucket. He jumped, lifted the ball over his head and dunked it backward, the rare reverse overhead slam, a staple of practices and layup lines and dunk contests, but rarely spotted in the wild in its full plumage.

Mitchell shrugged it off.

“That’s not really something that’s hard for me,” Mitchell said. “I’m 6-9. I was kind of in that position and I went up with it and it worked out.”

His teammates did not.

“I was surprised. I didn’t think he was actually going to do that,” Duke guard Jared McCain said. “Mark, he’s such a kind-of-go-with-the-flow kind of guy, and when he brings some aggression, it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, Mark.’ It’s good to see him bring some aggression, some tenacity, to the team.”

On a night when Duke posted a workmanlike win over woeful, underachieving Louisville, the kind of game that might have made James Naismith consider a better use for those peach baskets if he knew where it was going to lead, there were a few moments of transcendent basketball beauty buried in the 84-59 muck, reminders of how beautiful the game can be even in otherwise unremarkable circumstances.

Mitchell’s dunk was, unquestionably, one — an uncommon display of athletic ability, explosiveness and imagination. For a player who does so much for Duke, rebounding and defending and all but ensuring victory if he can get to double digits (31-3), but is often overlooked on a team with Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor and McCain, that was a moment when the spotlight was almost blinding.

“He’s a complete player,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “He does so much. I don’t know that he gets the credit that he probably should, nationally, or even in our league. When you talk about key guys I think anybody would love to have Mark Mitchell on their team.”

That moment was bookended by its basketball opposite: A late 3-pointer by 5-foot-8 former walk-on Spencer Hubbard that sent Cameron into a frenzy and had the starters on the Duke bench waving towels in acclimation.

“Greatest vibe in the universe, man,” McCain said.

That kind of moment is more common, almost a staple of these kinds of blowouts, but that made it no less appreciated, and certainly worth sticking around to the otherwise forgettable end.

In a long season, when not every game is a rivalry or a meeting of top-25 teams, there are games that you don’t so much play as endure. Coming off Saturday’s emotional, dramatic loss at Wake Forest and everything that went with it — Duke trapped on the floor as the Wake students rushed onto the court and Filipowski helped off injured, although he emerged unscathed and played 29 of the first 34 minutes Wednesday — this game against the ACC’s worst team didn’t come imbued with a lot of sizzle.

There are inevitably a lot of games like that, the nature of a 20-game schedule in a conference that isn’t anchored by mutual dislike the way it once was. (Maryland, we hardly knew ye.) Avoiding a letdown over the course of three months is a skill that has to be practiced and honed, just like free throws or breaking the press.

Duke’s road to D.C. is brutal: Virginia, at N.C. State, North Carolina. This was the last game of anything less than great consequence Duke will play this season. The long and difficult march to … March is finally over.

It helps when there are moments along the way, buried like sea glass in the sand, that suddenly catch the light and dazzle. Mitchell’s dunk was that Wednesday. So was Hubbard’s 3-pointer. Maybe even more so. They lead you on to the next game like breadcrumbs. They lead you to the ACC tournament, and the NCAA tournament, and everything that makes the long season worthwhile.

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