WASHINGTON, D.C. - All season long, Duke looked to senior captain DeMarcus Nelson to provide a spark when it needed it most.
But in the NCAA Tournament, that boost never came.
Gerald Henderson made up for it against Belmont, carrying the Blue Devils into the second round by scoring the team's final eight points. In Saturday's contest against West Virginia, however, his efforts were not enough to compensate for the struggling Nelson, and Duke bowed out in the Tournament's first weekend for the second straight year.
In a two-minute stretch early in the second half, Nelson missed a fastbreak layup, a 3-pointer and a jumper in the lane. That started an almost six-and-a-half-minute period where the Blue Devils scored just two points, allowing the Mountaineers to take a 40-38 lead.
Then, with 12:55 remaining, Nelson's layup attempt to bring Duke within one at 43-40 was emphatically rejected by the Mountaineers' Joe Alexander. That deflating play keyed a 7-0 West Virginia run and exemplified the senior's problems in the Tournament.
"I think he probably struggled with trying too hard," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's the only senior on our team and really one of the main reasons we've won 28 games this year. I think sometimes at the end, a person who cares...puts too much on themselves. I think the last couple of weeks, he's done that."
Nelson said he approached the Tournament games the same way he approached all of the Blue Devils' contests this season. But Duke's leader did not play at the same level as he did before, missing all five of his 3-point attempts and having several layups rim out. Over two games in the nation's capital, Nelson scored a total of eight points on 3-for-17 shooting. He had just six rebounds-two against the Mountaineers-one assist and one steal in the Tournament.
The captain's struggles came after a regular season in which he led Duke in scoring, averaging 14.5 points per game.
"He hasn't been his regular self the last few games, but you can't really measure what he's given to our team this year," Henderson said. "We'll never deviate from our regular game plan, and DeMarcus has been the guy this year, so we trust that he's going to play hard. Everyone has a responsibility, but it's his responsibility to lead us. He's been doing that all year. Even with the kinds of games he's had in the last few weeks, he's been great for us all season."
Nelson had bounced back from a poor performance against North Carolina March 8 to have a strong ACC Tournament. After scoring just six points on 3-of-12 shooting against the Tar Heels, the guard nearly had a triple-double against Georgia Tech and then put up 14 points and 9 rebounds against Clemson in the semifinals.
When Duke needed him the most, however, Nelson wasn't there. And so the captain's career ends without him ever playing in a Final Four.
"There are just so many emotions running right now, because of my final game," Nelson said. "It's the last time I get to wear this uniform, the last time I get to play with my teammates, and I really love my teammates. We had a great year together, but it just hurts that we ended my career, ended this season the way we did with us going out like that."
Nelson denied a rumor that illness affected his play.
Heading into next year, the Blue Devils will need to replace Nelson's on-court production, along with his leadership. Henderson said his class will be ready to take on more responsibilities, and Nelson was confident that somebody will fill his role.
But Duke wasn't focused on that yet. For the time being, the team remained couldn't shake the end to its season or its lone senior's career.
"Sometimes it's just not there," sophomore guard Jon Scheyer said. "We wouldn't be in this position without DeMarcus, bottom line. DeMarcus has been a big brother to me. He's been our leader the whole year, so I just feel bad for him that he can't go into the next round."
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