RALEIGH—Countless times this season, Duke has fallen behind early on the road, only for a second-half surge to come in and save the Blue Devils from an unranked loss.
But everyone knew it couldn’t last forever. Eventually, there would be a night in which yet another slow start came back to bite them.
Wednesday was that night.
Duke allowed N.C. State to shoot out to a 10-1 lead in the first three minutes of the contest and never recovered, eventually falling 88-66 in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s worst unranked defeat during his 40-year tenure in Durham.
Blue Devil fans can point to a lot of different causes of the shocking upset, from a 10-of-22 showing at the free throw line to a 4-of-17 mark from beyond the arc.
Krzyzewski, however, had a more direct answer.
“We’re not that good,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re good, and we’ve accomplished very good [things]. We don’t have the consistency of [being] really good with every player.”
Therein lies the question—is Duke’s 22-4 record bloated compared to the actual talent that record represents? It certainly seemed that way Wednesday evening in PNC Arena.
The Blue Devils’ offense was dreadful from the start, missing their first six attempts from the field and shooting under 38 percent on the night. Alex O’Connell and Joey Baker’s sharpshooting prowess was nowhere to be found, Cassius Stanley scored only four points following his one-game absence and Tre Jones finished a meager 6-of-18 from the floor.
Duke’s only consistent threat on the offensive end was Vernon Carey Jr., who led the team with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting.
Even on the other side of the ball, the team’s supposed backbone, the Blue Devils got eaten alive by the preying Wolfpack. N.C. State’s guards torched the typically-menacing perimeter duo of Jones and Jordan Goldwire, with Markell Johnson pouring in 28 points and Devon Daniels adding 25 more.
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Now it’s probably easier to see how this upset occurred, and it could make you wonder whether more defeats might be on the horizon.
“Sometimes when you’ve eaten a lot...you have to stay hungry while you’re winning at that level, because we’re not a team at that level,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve just won that many games. And tonight we were not competitive.”
Of course, it’s easy to overreact after one game. Just four days ago, O’Connell and Baker were raining threes, Jones and Goldwire limited Notre Dame’s starting backcourt trio to 2-of-20 shooting and Duke blew out the Fighting Irish by 34.
But that contest was in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. When it comes to trips outside Durham, from Chestnut Hill, Mass., to Chapel Hill to Raleigh, the Blue Devils have often seemed ill-prepared for the challenge that awaited them.
“Our focus, our hunger,” Jones said of the difference between Saturday’s win against Notre Dame and Wednesday’s loss. “We didn’t have the same level of intensity coming out tonight before the game and everything and it showed right away.”
Naturally, Duke seemed right at the cusp of another miraculous comeback attempt in the middle of the second half, with a Carey and-one cutting the Wolfpack’s lead down to 11 with 11 minutes remaining in the contest.
But then the Blue Devils learned a very valuable lesson—a late comeback bid can’t make up for a lack of urgency every time out. Sometimes, the hunger has to be there right at the opening tip, not just when the game clock tells you it’s time to pick it up.
For Duke’s sake, hopefully it learned that lesson Wednesday night. So when the Blue Devils travel to Wake Forest next Tuesday and then Virginia four days later, they’ll be ready.
“They also have won,” Krzyzewski said of his team. “Of all the maladies you could have, winning would be the best one. But it’s still a malady. And tonight it was a horrible sickness for us.”