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Duke falters at finish after strong start to season

This time, there were no shots of Blue Devils slouched on the floor, no looks of disbelief or disgust.

No, it was more resignation Saturday at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Resignation after 15 straight errant 3-pointers, after what West Virginia forward Joe Alexander called a manhandling, after the Mountaineers sent Duke home on the NCAA Tournament's first weekend for the second consecutive year.

Although Alexander may have exaggerated the control West Virginia exerted in its win over the Blue Devils, this one didn't come down to a last-second shot.

The Mountaineers dominated the boards Saturday, outhustling and outworking Duke in the second half. After trailing by five at halftime, West Virginia went on a 31-12 run-bookended by backbreaking Alex Ruoff 3-pointers-to both seize the lead and put the game out of reach.

"No matter how well or how hard you're playing, you've got to put the ball in the basket, and we didn't do that," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday. "Our kids were really ready to play. They're just real disappointed because it didn't translate into a winning performance."

The result, however, not only justified the doubts that surrounded the team's late-season struggles, but also raised questions heading into next year and beyond. Namely, are the Blue Devils built to win in March? Or has Duke become the Atlanta Braves of college basketball?

The Blue Devils' season has ended abruptly in back-to-back years after nine straight trips to the Sweet 16. DeMarcus Nelson ignominiously became the first Duke player to finish his four-year career without a Final Four appearance in a decade, and the Blue Devils have lost Tournament games while donning the white uniform of the favorite six of the last seven seasons.

"Obviously, there's been some great teams that have played for Duke," sophomore Gerald Henderson said after Saturday's loss. "But we can't play through those people, we can't live through those people. We have to create our own legacy.... We have to do it ourselves because nothing's really given to you when you come here. You have to earn everything you get. We've learned that over the last two years."

Krzyzewski was quick to point out all the things the Blue Devils did accomplish in a bounceback season that exceeded nearly everyone's expectations. Duke won 28 games, including eight against teams that made the NCAA Tournament-three of which are still playing. In early February, the Blue Devils rose as high as No. 2 in the national rankings.

The coach's experience with the national team led to a reenergized offense that finished third in the country in scoring, a season after finishing last in the ACC. The scoring droughts and walk-it-up halfcourt style of the year before were replaced by a perimeter-oriented, push-the-tempo offensive machine that occasionally seemed unstoppable-like Feb. 6 in Chapel Hill.

All the while, the team did it with an undersized roster that appeared to take pleasure in avenging 2007's losses and proving its doubters wrong.

Duke followed the lead of Nelson, its senior captain, who spoke candidly in the preseason about the anger he felt the season before.

But after a 22-1 start, the Blue Devils lost a little bit of their edge, looking tired late in the year. And Saturday, the team that prided itself on its hunger was outrebounded by 20 and could never get the defensive stops it needed.

Krzyzewski, however, focused on the larger picture.

"That's a great season," Krzyzewski said Saturday. "You always have to look at the full body of work. And this team was a lot of fun and great to work with, a young group.

"It's tough to end on a loss, but the season was a really rewarding one and a happy one for me."

Duke, however, is no longer judged by what happens from November to February. It's what happens during that three-week stretch that bridges March and April that defines the Blue Devils. And too often in recent seasons, Duke has entered March like a lion and gone out like a lamb.

"We had a lot of goals this year, and we really didn't accomplish all of them," Henderson said. "So we still have a lot of work to do."

One thing the Blue Devils don't feel, however, is resignation. After all, a little extra motivation has helped this team before.

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