Devils’ tourney run ended by Villanova

Published 11:40 am Saturday, March 28, 2009

By By LUKE DeCOCK, Raleigh News and Observer
BOSTON — It would be hard to find, looking around the country, a team that got hotter at the right time than Duke, which won 10 of 11 to win the ACC Tournament and advance to the East Regional semifinals.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, they needed only to look across the court Thursday night to find one.
Duke’s season ended in disheartening fashion with a comprehensive 77-54 loss to Villanova, the Blue Devils’ worst NCAA Tournament loss since UNLV won by 30 in the 1990 title game.
Villanova has won 15 of its past 18 and proved to be a similar team to Duke, with one post presence, a handful of dangerous guards, and three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup.
Too similar for the Devils, in the end. Villanova’s defense was swarming and its offense opportunistic, just like Duke at its best. But Duke was far from its best, giving up 51 points in the second half.
The Blue Devils started slowly and never caught up. They were down three at halftime, but it felt like double digits with Gerald Henderson in foul trouble, Kyle Singler mired on the perimeter and Jon Scheyer swarmed and often stuck with the ball as the shot clock ran down.
That trio finished a combined 9-for-45 as frustration set in and Villanova’s lead reached 10, 13, 16, 19, 21. The Devils produced more fouls (seven) and turnovers (four) than field goals (two) during one dismal five-minute stretch of the second half.
Late in the game, as Villanova coach Jay Wright complained about a call, referee Karl Hess merely stared back and extended a finger upward toward the scoreboard. When was the last time anyone took pity on Duke?
With less than two minutes left, Singler and Henderson left the game. Scheyer was already out. And Duke, down 21, officially placed the tattered shreds of the ACC’s reputation in North Carolina’s hands.
It was far from pretty, but this ugly loss can’t take away from what Duke did this season. Though the Blue Devils fell short of the Final Four, they didn’t fall short of their own standards.
Had this team lost to Texas last weekend, this season would have had a distinct aura of unfinished business. Just like the last one. Just like the one before that.
And though this group will be disappointed with when and how it ended, it also can take some satisfaction that it made it this far.
The Blue Devils left Boston five weeks ago in disarray, losers in four of six, questioning everything that they were and could be. Their season reached its lowest point here, with a loss to Boston College that provoked the lineup changes that got them back to Boston.
It wasn’t long ago that this season was on the verge of falling apart. The Blue Devils not only salvaged it, but also upheld Duke’s lofty standards. Having met them, this group will enter next season, if not this weekend, with its eyes on the Final Four.
The backcourt will return largely intact, with the top three on the depth chart expected back. Henderson will be a contender for ACC player-of-the-year honors if he returns, although the NBA will beckon. Singler remains one of the most versatile offensive threats in the league.
Two freshmen could have significant impacts as well: Mason Plumlee, the younger brother of little-used freshman Miles Plumlee, could add a new dimension in the post, and Ryan Kelly is a scoring forward in the Singler mold, only taller.
Those thoughts now move to the forefront with Thursday’s loss. It’s officially next season at Duke, but the Blue Devils can look back at this season — if not Thursday — without regret.
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