Many questioned which Duke team would take the floor Wednesday night: The one that struggled mightily to score, or the one capable of inspired second-half comebacks.
The answer, unfortunately for the Blue Devils, was a little bit of both.
At times during the first half, Duke seemed like it couldn't miss, as the team erased an early double-digit deficit by outscoring North Carolina 34-15 in the final 10 minutes before the break. But when the Tar Heels pushed back in the second half-just as everyone inside Cameron Indoor Stadium knew they would-Duke simply couldn't regain any sign of its offensive rhythm.
"We made some pretty special plays offensively [in the first half], and we played some really good basketball," junior forward Gerald Henderson said. "Our cohesiveness wasn't the same as the first half, but we had a lot of open shots that we just missed."
The Blue Devils closed the opening period by playing some of their best basketball this season, as Henderson, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler combined for 36 of Duke's 52 points. And Greg Paulus, who received enormous crowd support when his name was called for his second straight start, brought the Cameron faithful to their feet repeatedly with several defensive hustle plays and a few timely shots during Duke's surge, when the Blue Devils overcame a 29-18 deficit for a 52-44 halftime lead.
But then, the team went cold.
The Blue Devils' astronomically high 62 percent clip at the half dropped significantly by game's end because of the team's combined 13-of-36 shooting following intermission. Duke only hit two of its 15 second-half 3-pointers, and at one point, missed four straight shots that helped North Carolina balloon its lead to 88-71 on a 14-0 run. Paulus, who struggled to guard the speedy Ty Lawson when the Tar Heel guard took over the game in the second half, failed to add at all to his first-half total, and Henderson scored just four points in a half that saw him miss his first six shots from the field.
"We were playing pretty well offensively. Guys were finding each other and looking for each other, but we were just not knocking the shots down," Henderson said. "I missed a lot. I feel responsible for that because I've been knocking shots down."
"You're going to run into some shooting slumps," Singler said. "We took open shots, we just never had a chance to hit them.... As long as we're taking good shots and we have a chance to rebound them, then we're going to still take those."
While the Blue Devils struggled to find their stroke from behind the arc in the second half, the Tar Heels emphasized spreading the floor offensively and attacking the basket on drives and slashes through the lane. North Carolina converted 14 of its 19 field goals on either layups or dunks, including all seven of Lawson's baskets en route to his 21 second-half points.
"Toward the end, we were trying to pressure them a little bit more, trying to force something, force turnovers," Henderson said. "It's kind of deflating when you put all your effort into that and then to give up a layup."
The dichotomy in the styles of play forced Duke out of its element, even causing the Blue Devils to play into North Carolina's hand at times, Singler said.
With a trip to Boston College ahead Sunday, it's clear the Blue Devils have little time to get over the loss to their fiercest rival and find their shooting stroke once more. But head coach Mike Krzyzewski emphasized there is still plenty left to play this season and Duke stands to get better from this game.
After all, last night, Duke's fate came down to one simple fact: The shots just didn't fall.
"It's just the way it is," Krzyzewski said. "Again, it's how you're taking them, and they took them with confidence. I don't have fault with my team tonight.... They're better than us, and sometimes a team that's better doesn't play as well as that, but they played that way too.
"We didn't play bad. We played well. [But North Carolina] played terrific, and we're not that good right now."
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