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Blue Devils' stunning exit caps a flawed season

By Aaron Beard

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 5:45 p.m. MDT

Duke's Seth Curry, right, Miles Plumlee, center, and Josh Hairston, left, react on the bench during the second half of an NCAA tournament second-round college basketball game against Lehigh in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 16, 2012. Lehigh won 75-70.

Chuck Burton, Associated Press

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Austin Rivers sat at his locker in disbelief, even uttering an expletive in describing the shock of how Duke's season had just ended. Seth Curry sat a chair away, staring blankly into his locker and struggling to explain what happened.

The problems that led to the Blue Devils' loss to Lehigh in their NCAA tournament opener were hardly new. They struggled to defend dribble penetration. They relied on 3-point shooting all year, and had few options when those outside shots kept clanging off the rim. And yet, that didn't make the sight of Mike Krzyzewski's proud program going one-and-done in the South Regional as a No. 2 seed Friday night any less stunning.

It was the first time Duke lost its first NCAA tournament game since 2007 and just the fourth time in 28 trips under Krzyzewski.

"There were times this year where I felt like we were over the edge," Rivers said. "We were past the, 'That was a weakness, we just handled that this game, and we're going to be doing this for the rest of the year.' Then here it shows right back up in an NCAA tournament game."

At first glance, the season will look plenty like so many others under Coach K.

The Blue Devils (27-7) won at rival North Carolina and played for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship. They also won at least 26 games for the 14th time in 15 seasons, helping Krzyzewski pass Bob Knight as the all-time winningest coach in Division I men's history. They beat Michigan State, Michigan and Kansas in nonconference play.

Still, they were never quite like past teams in the storied program, either.

Duke lost three times on its famed home court for the first time in five years. Florida State's Michael Snaer hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer in the Seminoles' 76-73 win that snapped a 45-game winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January. Miami won there in overtime in February. And North Carolina avenged its home loss on Rivers' last-play 3-pointer by romping over the Blue Devils in Cameron in the regular-season finale to clinch the ACC title.

There were two other games Duke nearly lost at home, too. The Blue Devils rallied from 20 down in the second half to beat North Carolina State and edged Virginia Tech in overtime on Feb. 25.

The defense that has always been a hallmark of Krzyzewski's teams was inconsistent at best, ranking 10th in the 12-team league in field-goal percentage defense.

Krzyzewski had said earlier this year that some of this team's problems stem from a lack of attention to detail and effort. And after Duke blew most of a 22-point lead in the second half before holding on to beat St. John's 83-76 at home on Jan. 28, Krzyzewski said it "was a loss today for me" and compared his team's lackluster performance to an AAU game.

"Coach does everything in his power to get us going and get us out there playing as one," reserve forward Josh Hairston said. "But for some reason we struggle to do that. We struggle to connect, we struggle to be together out there on the floor. To win a national championship, you can't have five individuals on the floor. You have to have five playing as one and we didn't have that."

The win against UNC appeared to have Duke on the right course, but the Blue Devils faded late. A foot injury that sidelined forward Ryan Kelly for the ACC and NCAA tournament games didn't help as they lost three of four games to end the year.

"I think overall my team did a great job this year," Krzyzewski said. "But we did not do a really good job this last week and a half, and so that's upsetting. Because no matter what happens, injury or whatever, you're responsible for trying to figure out a way that your team can play well."

The Blue Devils likely will have plenty of scorers returning with rising seniors Curry, Kelly and Mason Plumlee. Rivers was an all-ACC first-team pick as a freshman, but the guard wouldn't say whether the sting of the Lehigh loss would make him more likely to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft.

"There were things we didn't do and you just get tired of saying it — we should've done this, there's things we need to work on," Rivers said. "There's no more. It's done. I don't know what to say. I've never ended a season like this."

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