For a senior who has quietly emerged as one of Duke's strongest leaders, this wasn't the way DeMarcus Nelson wanted it to end: silently.
On a night that was supposed to be his, the lone captain came out cold, going 0-for-5 in the first half and 3-for-12 for the game. On a night that was supposed to be his, Nelson could not muscle No. 6 Duke to a win over its most hated rivals in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On a night that was supposed to be his, the senior had to take the microphone after a 76-68 loss to No. 1 North Carolina and soak in the chants of the Crazies, surrounded by his teammates but without the joy of a win.
Despite coming back from a double-digit deficit at halftime and taking their first lead at 68-66 with 5:42 left, the Blue Devils just did not have enough Saturday night to give Nelson the farewell-or the ACC title-they all had hoped for.
"When you go down by 11 going into the half with a good team like that, it's going to be tough to win a game," Nelson said. "We really played with a lot of emotion and fought back to get in the game, but I think that once we got there, we were just emotionally drained... and we hit a wall."
Duke's fight for the win was fitting for the senior captain. Nelson, who consistently battled physical setbacks in his four years at Duke, even acknowledged Saturday that his career has had "its ups and downs," but that this year had been a great one for him and the program. A comeback ending would have made the trajectory of the night match that of Nelson's Duke tenure and his team's regular-season campaign.
The Blue Devils, though, hit an "emotional wall" at the wrong time, failing to score a single point after they finally had wrested the lead from the No. 1 team in the country. With just fewer than six minutes left in the contest, the Blue Devils took their first advantage since they led 3-2 when Jon Scheyer finished on a drive through the paint.
On the ensuing North Carolina possession,though, sophomore Gerald Henderson pulled down a strong rebound off a Tyler Hansbrough shot, and Greg Paulus missed an open jumper. The possession after that, Henderson blocked the star Tar Heel big man, but hit the front rim on his dunk at the other end. Duke had four chances to build on its lead before North Carolina knotted the score at 68, but came up just short.
And with very little left to give, and too many fouls to give-just nine fouls were called collectively in the second period- Duke's conference title slipped out of its grasp. The shots were there. The emotion was there. But somehow, the makes weren't.
"In the second half, we played really well, really hard... [but] if you miss good shots, and they make their good shots, and you lose, you just lose," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We wanted to be in this game."
Duke shot a season-worst 32.9 percent from the field, almost 15 points lower than its season average. The team was also outrebounded, outblocked, and as Nelson said, outplayed by North Carolina.
Yet, just because the ACC season did not end the way the Blue Devils had wanted does not mean that their postseason will. Particularly for a senior who is looking to finish his career on his own terms.
"Not to forget this feeling right now-that's going to be my motivation," Nelson said. "I don't ever want to feel like this again."
For Nelson and Duke, there's only one way to make that happen.
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