RALEIGH—It's not clear what the reason is behind it, but there is a scary trend for Duke: the Blue Devils can't seem to win in PNC Arena.
After regaining control of the ACC's top spot last weekend, No. 6 Duke's seven-game winning streak was snapped by North Carolina State Wednesday night in PNC Arena. With the 88-66 loss, Duke has now lost six of its last eight matchups in the venue dating back to 2010. The 22-point defeat is the Blue Devils' worst of the season.
The big matchup coming into the night was Duke's elite backcourt defense against the Wolfpack's elite scoring guard duo. The battle ended in N.C. State's favor, with Markell Johnson and Devon Daniels leading the team with 28 and 25 points, respectively. The Blue Devils received solid scoring outputs from their stars with 27 points from Vernon Carey Jr. and 17 points from Tre Jones, but it was too little too late for the visitors in a hostile ACC road environment.
"They were just playing hungrier and better than we were," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "This isn't an Xbox game, this is a human being game. That Xbox thing doesn't have human nature in it, that's why a lot of people play it. This game is about human nature and human beings. Sometimes when you eat too much, you're not as hungry. When you need something, you're really hungry. When those two meet, a lot of times the team that needs it the most kicks the other team's butt. That's what happened tonight."
After yet another slow start for Duke, the visitors tried to use a spurt midway through the second half for a comeback win, but the deficit ultimately proved too large. DJ Funderburk sealed the Blue Devils fate with nine points in a three-minute span, as well as grabbing a late steal to put the Wolfpack up 20 points and out of harm's way.
"North Carolina, that was a good game. Today we were flat and we weren't picking it up. We didn't put our foot down and say 'enough is enough,'" Cassius Stanley said on Duke's failed comeback attempt.
Down by as many as 23 in the second half, the Blue Devils mounted the back of Carey. The freshman dominated down low for seven consecutive points and suddenly the N.C. State lead was cut to just 11 with 11 minutes to play, though the Wolfpack would recover.
Things couldn't have kicked off worse for Duke (22-4, 12-3 in ACC) in its attempt to end its PNC Arena woes, falling behind into an early 10-1 deficit. The Blue Devils failed to connect on their first six shots before Wendell Moore Jr. started the team's engine over four minutes into the contest with a coast-to-coast lay-in.
“You definitely think that a little bit, but obviously it’s possible at any time with how we were playing, the level of focus we have," Jones said. "It comes down to all of us being more prepared, being more ready for the start of the game, being hungrier. When some of us aren’t ready, we’ve got to get on each other rather than just letting it keep going. It’s on all of us to pick it up.”
Moore's bucket kicked off a quick 7-2 spurt to close the cap to five, however, that would be as close as Duke would get for the remainder of the first frame. Johnson quickly stopped any momentum with a pair of 3-pointers in 35 seconds. The backcourt edge in the first half clearly belonged to the Wolfpack (17-9, 8-7).
"That's our worst game and they made us look bad too," Krzyzewski said. "Daniels, right away from the start, was such an aggressor. And then Markell Johnson, when he plays like that, they're an elite team. He's an elite guard, but their whole team played well."
Unlike last time out against Notre Dame, free throws were the Achilles Heel for the Blue Devils, shooting just 10-of-22 for the game. Though shooting from the charity stripe has been an issue this season, the team missed only one of its seven attempts against the Fighting Irish Saturday.
Whatever Krzyzewski said at halftime clearly wasn't enough to wake up the Blue Devils, who continued their trend of missing free throws and giving up triples. Johnson connected on his fourth 3-pointer with a flashy step-back jumper, and even DJ Funderburk got in on the action with a kind roll off the rim. N.C. State grew its lead by nine by the first media timeout of the second frame.
"Every team in this conference is really good," freshman Matthew Hurt said. "We can't take a night off or a practice off. Every team in this conference can beat anybody."
The Blue Devils will look to rebound Saturday when they return home for a primetime rematch with Virginia Tech. Duke took the first meeting of the season Dec. 5 with a 77-63 win behind a stellar performance from Jones. After Wednesday night, the Blue Devils fall behind Louisville in the race for the ACC regular season crown.
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