Blue Devils concentrate on late-game shooting

When Greg Paulus missed a last-second shot in Duke's final game last season, all the point guard could do was fall to the floor and bury his head on the hardwood.

With a 79-77 upset loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a season full of close losses came crashing down on the team as Duke failed to advance past the opening round for the first time in 11 seasons.

At times this year the current Blue Devils have reversed their late-game fortune. Other times, the problems of last season have reemerged.

Nailing clutch shots in the final minute will be the key obstacle in Duke's path to the Final Four.

"Last year's [loss to VCU] was not the outcome we were hoping for or expected," Paulus said. "It's been there all summer and winter.

"Now we have an opportunity to do something else."

To remedy last season's late-game woes-which included poor shots, missed free throws and turnovers in the final minutes-head coach Mike Krzyzewski has put more emphasis on simulating those types of scenarios.

"Being at 78-78, how do you close the game? Down four, how do you come back?" senior DeMarcus Nelson said. "That has been key for our success."

The practice? It's paid off. Sometimes.

Down 84-79 with two minutes to play at N.C. State March 1, Duke looked as if it might lose for the third time in five games-and Krzyzewski, sitting at 799 wins, would have to wait to capture his 800th victory. But after Nelson and Paulus hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the last two minutes, Duke had a chance to pull off the kind of comeback that would have eluded them a year ago. A pair of free throws by Nelson was all the Blue Devils needed for the 87-86 win.

"It was a remarkable game," Krzyzewski said after the win. "I thought N.C. State played superbly, and outplayed us for 32 minutes. I don't think they played poorly in the last eight minutes, but our guys made remarkable plays.... Every one of our guys hit big shots and free throws."

But in two of Duke's last three games, the Blue Devils couldn't make the most important shot when it mattered. Not surprisingly, both were losses.

On March 8 against North Carolina, with the ACC regular-season championship on the line, Jon Scheyer made a layup with 5:42 left in the second half to boost Duke to a 68-66 lead, its first since the game's opening minutes.

Then, the Blue Devils went cold, missing their last 11 shots of the game as the No. 1 Tar Heels closed the second half on a 10-0 run to take the league crown.

Scoring droughts plagued last season's team-in the most important five minutes this year, they reared again.

Facing a similar situation a week later in the ACC Tournament, Duke almost mounted a late-game comeback against Clemson. But the second-seeded Blue Devils did not convert on two critical possessions in the last minute and failed to reach the finals for the second year in a row-an anomaly for a team that had advanced to nine straight title games before last season.

"You can't spend too much time talking about [missed shots at the end of games]," Krzyzewski said. "Otherwise, you make them think about it.... We did have shots. We have to continue to take shots.

"And if you miss by taking good shots, then so be it."

Which side of the streaky Blue Devils emerges in the NCAA Tournament is still unclear. What is almost certain, though, is that Duke will be tested in the final minutes, especially if it makes a run deep into the Tournament. And all of Duke's late-game endings-the N.C. State win, and the losses from VCU to Clemson-will be fresh on the players' minds.

In Krzyzewski's view, that will only help Duke's chances.

"I think we have a better chance of being good right now than we did 10 days ago," he said Monday.


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