BUFFALO, N.Y. - For the first time all season, Duke had two players score at least 20 points in a game. Although Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus turned in their best outings of the season-and career highs to boot-the other Blue Devils failed to pick up the remaining slack.
Unfortunately for Duke, it came at the worst possible time, ending its season before the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade.
Balanced scoring has been a theme for the Blue Devils all year, as the team has only had a 20-point scorer on 12 occasions throughout the season. But Thursday in Buffalo, outside of McRoberts and Paulus, no other player even reached double-figures.
DeMarcus Nelson, who led the Blue Devils in scoring during the season, was absent from Duke's offensive flow. Aside from his coast-to-coast layup to tie the contest at 77 with 12 seconds left and a three-point play early in the first frame, the junior had trouble reaching the paint against VCU's defense. Nelson picked up his fourth foul on a reach-in with 11:13 remaining in the game and was sloppy with the ball, turning it over five times.
Jon Scheyer was almost non-existent for Duke in the first half, as the freshman attempted only one shot. Scheyer did not fare much better in the second period either, as he hit only 2-of-6 from the field and missed all three of his three-point attempts.
Both Nelson and Scheyer also struggled defending VCU point guard Eric Maynor who scored eight of his team-high 22 points down the stretch, including the game-winning jumper over Scheyer's outstretched arm with 1.8 seconds remaining.
"We just gave up the ball a lot in the half-court, and we gave them a lot of points off of turnovers," Nelson said. "We just didn't do the tough things down the stretch."
Last year, J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams dominated the stat sheet throughout the season for Duke while the team struggled all year to find a third scoring option. That was not a problem this season for the Blue Devils, as five different players have led the team in scoring in a game. But in their final game of the season, with Paulus and McRoberts resembling the old Redick and Williams duo from a year ago, the Blue Devils could not take advantage.
McRoberts was unimpressed by his own outing, despite the fact that he led the team with 12 rebounds, five blocks and tied Paulus for the team lead with four assists. The forward missed a key free throw with 21 seconds left that would have tied the game at 76.
"I'm never happy with my performance when we lose because that means I did not do enough to win the game," he said.
All season long McRoberts has been criticized for not being assertive enough offensively, but Thursday the forward showed signs of the dominant player many have expected him to be. Early in the second half, when Duke started to separate itself from VCU, the sophomore constantly demanded the ball in the post and scored seven points in Duke's 21-12 run to start the frame.
"He reminds me of a guy I coached at the University of Florida named David Lee," VCU head coach Anthony Grant said. "He's a guy that is very talented, big and physical, and probably without question the most talented guy we've played this year in the frontcourt."
Duke's other frontcourt players, Lance Thomas and David McClure, provided little help to McRoberts in the post. The forwards combined for only four points and four rebounds, and they each picked up four fouls. Because the two struggled with foul trouble throughout the contest, McRoberts was forced to play all but 27 seconds of the game.
In the game's final minutes, the Rams began to deny the ball from McRoberts and ultimately the Blue Devils could not find a way to keep VCU at bay.
And ironically for Duke, in a game in which its two sophomore stars played perhaps their best games as Blue Devils, their efforts were still not enough.
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