The men's basketball team's nightmare got even worse Wednesday night.
After the Blue Devils went on a 10-2 spurt to open the second half and cut N.C. State's lead to 47-45, freshman guard Steve Wojciechowski stood at the free-throw line with an opportunity to tie the game.
But with 17 minutes left, Wojciechowski missed both free throws, and the rout was on. The Blue Devils were outscored 30-13 the rest of the way and lost 77-60 in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"We never really had a sustained defensive effort beyond that first spurt," acting head coach Pete Gaudet said.
With its fifth consecutive loss and sixth in its last seven games, Duke fell to 9-7 overall. This year's team also became the first men's basketball squad in school history to begin the season 0-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Unthinkably, the Blue Devils find themselves in a serious battle to make the NCAA Tournament. N.C. State improved to 10-4, 2-2 in the ACC.
"We don't make excuses -- this is unacceptable," said sophomore guard Jeff Capel. "You have to give them a lot of credit. The game meant more to them than it did to us. They were outworking us in every phase of the game."
"We have a good basketball team, we're just trying to kind of search and see why we can't put it together and get that win," said senior Cherokee Parks, a member of Duke's 1992 national championship team. "I hope this is the bottom. I hope we can't get any further down."
The reasons behind this most recent Duke loss are familiar. Once again, Duke's offense disappeared during crucial stretches of the game. Duke shot only 38.5 percent, including a chilly 5-of-21 from three-point range.
And once again, an opposing team's guard devastated the Duke defense. Like Virginia's Cory Alexander, Wake Forest's Randolph Childress and Georgia Tech's Travis Best, N.C. State freshman Ishua Benjamin took Duke apart, scoring 23 points and dishing out four assists.
"The young kid Benjamin really did a good job of breaking us down," Gaudet said. "It was tough for Wojo."
N.C. State's interior players also made life difficult for the Blue Devils. Parks did score 25 points on 11-of-20 shooting, but many of his shots were tightly contested. The Wolfpack even had an advantage on the boards, pulling down 40 rebounds to Duke's 39.
After Wojciechowski's missed free-throws, N.C. State went on an 10-4 spurt to take a 55-47 lead. Duke rallied briefly behind Jeff Capel's three-pointer from the corner and a baseline turnaround jumpshot by Parks.
But a thunderous dunk by Benjamin sparked the Wolfpack, which held Duke to one field goal over the next 10 minutes. The Blue Devils scored only 25 points overall in the second half, shooting 35.5 percent from the field and only 23 percent from behind the three-point arc.
"We have good ball movement at times, but it seems like some people are hurrying their shots sometimes and shooting when people aren't expecting them to shoot," Capel said.
The Blue Devils now embark on a three-game road trip which will take them to Flordia State, Notre Dame and Maryland. It won't get any easier when they return home -- No. 3 North Carolina travels to Cameron on Feb 2.
"We're at the point right now where we have nothing to lose," Capel said. "Last place in the conference, there shouldn't be any pressure on us to do anything. We should just come out and bring it every night, play hard every night."
During much of the first half, it looked as if Duke had rebounded from its last game, an emotional 91-88 double overtime loss to Virginia at home in which Duke had blown a 23-point lead. Twelve seconds into Wednesday night's game, freshman guard Trajan Lagdon hit a three-pointer. Jeff Capel followed that up with a driving layup off a steal, giving Duke an early 5-0 lead.
The Wolfpack came back to tie the game at 10, and the lead changed hands repeatedly until N.C. State center Todd Fuller completed a three-point play to tie the game up at 28.
As in most of Duke's losses this year, the defense broke down during a crucial stretch. Benjamin hit a free-throw and two straight three-pointers to lift the Wolfpack to a seven-point lead. After Parks hit a soft hook shot from the baseline to pull Duke within five, N.C. State forward Ricky Daniels buried two straight trifectas to give the Pack an 11-point lead.
"[Daniels] is not a great three point shooter, but it seems like in big games, if he's open he can hit them,'' said N.C. State head coach Les Robinson. "It's almost like the concentration level goes up."
With Duke down 10 at halftime, Gaudet told his players they needed to play tough.
"I talked to them in the halftime about a little bit of a gut-check being needed, because I thought we were breaking down in some areas, and I even thought that our effort was a little bit lax," he said.
The halftime speech seemed to work, as consecutive three-pointers by Parks and Langdon in the first minute of play pulled Duke within four. After Fuller hit a pair of free-throws for N.C. State, Langdon hit a long jumper and Meek hit a tough follow shot to pull Duke within two. Then came Wojciechowski's missed free-throws, and Duke would never get as close.
"Even though we're going through rough times, we still have to come out and play hard every night," Capel said. "We just didn't do that tonight."
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