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One word for Duke men's basketball against North Carolina: Crushing

Freshman Henry Coleman III gave Duke a major energy boost for the entire game.
Freshman Henry Coleman III gave Duke a major energy boost for the entire game.

After a demoralizing loss to North Carolina, the Blue Zone brings you our summary of the game in as simple a way as we can—in one word.  

One word: Crushing

To the untrained eye, Duke’s loss to the rival Tar Heels on Saturday night felt eerily similar to the team’s previous shortcomings. As in a series of recent losses to Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville, the Blue Devils worked their way into too large of a hole before halftime and were unable to comeback, despite yet another dramatic attempt that fell just short. Sadly, the way things unfolded seemed almost formulaic for a team that has developed a knack for this sort of game script.

But this game was not just another loss. Granted the unique opportunity to defeat a bitter rival and potentially turn around a trying season in one fell swoop, the Blue Devils failed to make this game feel much different from any other, despite the added stakes. Now looking at a daunting and improbable path to the NCAA tournament, that may sting for a long time.

To be fair, Duke fought valiantly in the loss, overcoming a seemingly insurmountable deficit more than once before ending up on the wrong side of the final score. But the all-too-familiar manner in which the home team fell, along with the many postseason implications and rivalry emotions, make this a crushing blow to these Blue Devils and their aspirations as a team.

One stat: 28 points off turnovers

On paper, the matchup between Duke’s dynamic perimeter and North Carolina’s stellar frontcourt looked as if it may ultimately decide the outcome of the game. The Tar Heel trio of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Leaky Black presented a matchup nightmare for the unusually small Blue Devils, who thrive outside of the paint and present defensive challenges for a team as large as North Carolina.

So, when the Tar Heels occupied nearly every passing lane and thrived in transition to the tune of a monstrous 28 points off 15 turnovers, what was supposed to be a classic battle between shooting and size instead turned into quite the track meet. The visitors shot a whopping 66.7% from 3-point range on 15 attempts, got to the free throw line at a rate more than triple that of Duke and simply outshot the Blue Devils who—to their credit—overcame their turnover issues to shoot their way back into the game behind an admirable performance from Jeremy Roach.

While Brooks, Bacot and Black stuffed the stat sheet in each of their own right on Saturday night, it was the unexpected impact of players like Caleb Love who—behind a career-high 25 points and a game-high seven assists—gave the Tar Heels the edge they needed to leave Durham with the win.

One player: Henry Coleman III

The Blue Devils are heavily reliant—and rightfully so—on top scorer and potential ACC Player of the Year Matthew Hurt. But the sophomore forward just did not have his best stuff against the Tar Heels this time around, laying a goose egg in the first half before eventually fouling out with just over four minutes left to play. His struggles and early foul trouble appeared to leave head coach Mike Krzyzewski without a clear answer at center. Even with Mark Williams playing well, the Blue Devils clearly needed more of an offensive punch than the 7-foot rim protector had to offer in that very moment, with the Tar Heels building a formidable lead early on.

That is when Krzyzewski decided to call upon the seldom used Coleman in the middle, who made his presence felt immediately by way of a pair of purposeful drives and gutsy defensive plays. While it may not show up in the stat sheet—Coleman registered just four points, two rebounds, two assists and one block in 12 minutes— the insertion of the 6-foot-7, 229-pound Energizer Bunny gave Duke an undeniable boost that kept them in a game that easily could have slipped out of reach early on.

At a crucial crossroads in what has become an increasingly dark season, these Blue Devils could use more of what a spark plug like Coleman has to offer. And with a do-or-die stretch ahead, tonight’s breakout freshman seems more ready than ever to contribute meaningful minutes when his number is called.

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