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Defeat caps emotional home finale

It seemed like Duke hit its stride at the beginning of the season. Apart from a mid-January stumble against Georgetown, the Blue Devils have been setting the pace at the head of the pack.

But with two straight losses-one at home against archrival North Carolina Saturday and the other at Florida State March 1-Duke is stumbling coming down the final stretch.

For the Tar Heels, it seems that they couldn't have hit their stride at a better time. They have won every game since Feb. 7, when they barely fell to Duke, 87-83. And immediately prior to upsetting the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Senior Night, North Carolina had dismantled Virginia by 45 points.

"I think this team has done something that every coach wants to do, and that is gotten better as the season has gone along-each and every day and each and every practice," Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams said after their game against Virginia. "They've put the effort and the concentration in to make that happen."

And even though Duke jumped out to an early 11-point lead Saturday, the Tar Heels took their time to attack Duke's sluggish defense and pulled off the 83-76 win. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski even admitted he was disappointed with his team's defensive effort as of late.

"I don't think we've played very well defensively in the last few weeks," Krzyzewski said. "The last time we played well defensively would have to be the Miami game [Feb. 19]."

Incidentally, that game clinched a share of the ACC regular-season title for the Blue Devils. And though Duke didn't secure outright first place in the conference until it defeated Georgia Tech three days later, the Blue Devils had little to worry about for the rest of the regular season-at least in terms of standings. Perhaps that explains the Blue Devils' latest trip-up.

"In the big scheme of things, this game doesn't really mean a whole lot as far as ACC [Tournament] seeding," senior guard J.J. Redick said. "But it means something to us, and it meant something to them. So we're obviously disappointed."

The truth of the matter is that Duke still has the top spot in the conference. But losing twice to finish off the regular season-no matter the tangible significance-does not bode well for the Blue Devils.

On top of its defensive struggles, Duke has been experiencing a bit of an offensive slump as of late. The Blue Devils have scored fewer than 80 points in their last four games, and Duke's leading scorer Redick averaged about 20 points in those contests-his season average is 27.8.

"We won the league," Krzyzewski said. "You've got to be careful. Sometimes you can look, not consciously, but you've moved ahead to March. You've moved ahead to the NCAA Tournament, and that can happen. I don't know if that happened."

So, with about one week until the postseason rolls around, the Blue Devils will need to refocus their attention not only on the game at hand but also on that April 3 goal.

"Our two losses just came at the end," senior Shelden Williams said. "It's just something that we're lucky we're experiencing now, and hopefully we don't have that same problem down the line."

Now that every game counts, it's up to the Blue Devils to pick themselves up, brush it off and get back in stride.

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