The lasting memory of Sunday's loss to Florida State will surely be that of several Seminoles popping their jerseys and taunting Duke's student section after the Blue Devils' last try came up just short.
Led by Al Thornton, Jerel Allen and Ralph Mims, a handful of Florida State players eschewed the handshake line after the game to jeer the Cameron Crazies. One player yelled, "Whose house is it now?"
Although that is certainly the image that will stick-like Virginia Tech's celebration in Cameron Indoor Stadium and Georgia Tech and Virginia fans storming their respective courts after home wins over the Blue Devils-it was not the game's most important sequence. For that matter, neither was anything that happened past the 2:31 mark in the second half-after which neither team would score.
Good looks were there for Duke at the end of the game, as DeMarcus Nelson missed an open three-pointer, and Nelson and McRoberts both had decent chances to save a Blue Devil victory within the final two seconds.
Duke, however, likely never would have been in the close, late-game situation in the first place had foul trouble not crippled the team midway through the first half. The Blue Devils' best three defensive frountcourt players-Josh McRoberts, Lance Thomas and Dave McClure-were all riddled with at least two fouls in the first period, handicapping head coach Mike Krzyzewski's game plan to shut down FSU and its dynamic forward Al Thornton.
Duke jumped out to a 27-10 lead over the game's first 10 minutes by limiting Thornton, but then it let the Seminoles whittle down the lead to three points by halftime.
"The kids were so ready to play, and we started off great-then we got all those fouls," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It was two different 10 minutes because there were two different teams on the court because of all the fouls."
The Blue Devils started the game with Thomas guarding Thornton. On Florida State's first few trips down the floor, the freshman seemed to frustrate Thornton. When Thomas quickly picked up two fouls, one on the offensive end and the other away from the ball, McClure entered the game in his place.
The defensive situation at the offset was remarkably different from that of a year ago against the Seminoles. In two games against the Blue Devils last season, Thornton scored 63 points. Most often guarded by the 6-foot-3 Nelson, Thornton slashed to the basket and tore through Duke's defense in leading his team to one win and another close loss in overtime.
Even with Thomas on the bench, McClure blocked one of Thornton's shots and affected several others. McRoberts got in on the action when Thornton drove, finishing with four blocks.
After those 10 minutes, however, the fouls began to pile up. Playing with those two fouls, Thomas picked up his third at the 7:50 mark. McClure earned his second fouling Thornton on a fast break two minutes later. And McRoberts was called for his second and third fouls within 20 seconds after McClure's second. During the first half's final 4:45, Thomas, McClure and McRoberts sat on the bench as Brian Zoubek and an otherwise undersized frontcourt let the big lead slip away.
Although it was not only Thornton that brought the Seminoles back, the foul trouble on Duke's three forwards charged with guarding him was a catalyst for the game's turnaround. Without them, Duke's game plan was erased-on both ends of the floor.
"It did hurt our game plan because me, Josh, guys like that were in a position where we couldn't play the end of the first half just because you're in foul trouble," Thomas said. "We just didn't stay aggressive and sharp. They fought back into it."
With Duke's lineup changed, holes in the defense emerged. At the same time, the offense that had been relying on McRoberts, Thomas and McClure to set screens for Greg Paulus to shoot from the perimeter stalled. Over the first half's final 9:47, Duke was outscored 23-9.
It was no coincidence that this run, which put the Seminoles in position to beat Duke at the end of regulation, came at the same time as the Blue Devils were struggling to adapt their strategy without their normal lineup.
"When two good teams play, if one team spurts a little bit, usually the other team will spurt back," Krzyzewski said. "We played better than them for eight minutes, and then they played better than us for eight minutes.... We were young in our aggressiveness. Josh [McRoberts'] two fouls changed the complexion of the game. We're not that deep or that good where you can do those types of things."
In the last few minutes of the game, the shots could have gone either way. Duke's fans should know that by know-for every Dave McClure buzzer-beater, there is bound to be a missed Greg Paulus three-pointer or DeMarcus Nelson tip.
In this game, it was the first half foul trouble that allowed a potential blowout to become the close situation at the end that could have gone either way.
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