Thursday, March 15, 2007

March Madness: Duke haters are rejoicing

11VCU 79, 6Duke 77

The jersey pop is played out, but these guys earned the right to be tired

The 2007 edition of the Duke Blue Devils concluded its season-long tribute to the 1995-96 team by bowing out in the opening round for the first time since...wait for it...1996.

Despite career-high performances from Josh McRoberts (22 pts, 12 rebs) and Greg Paulus (25 points) the Devils folded under late-game pressure once again to end Coach K's run of 9 consecutive Sweet 16's reached.

Duke appeared motivated early and got off to a scorching start, jumping out to a 22-9 lead over CAA champion VCU midway through the first half and clicking on all cylinders for one of the few times this season. McRoberts had a pair of monster dunks and blocks and Paulus, perhaps energized by playing in front of 40+ friends & family from his nearby hometown, Syracuse, was providing the scoring & leadership this team has lacked most of the year.

But the Devils suddenly reverted to the same group of talented-yet-confounding youngsters who lost a number of close games in the final month of the season before exiting in the first round of the ACC tourney last week. By halftime the Rams had cut the deficit to two, 40-38, and everyone who took VCU in the office pool knew the mentally-shaky Devils were on the ropes.

Duke started the second half much like it did the first-hot-and when it grabbed a 10-point lead with just over 10:00 to play some people believed (i.e. me) that being in so many close losses might work in Duke's favor in this one.

Not the case.

The Rams rode the play of diminutive guard Eric Maynor, who scored 22 points including 8 in the final four minutes, right back into the game, and by the time Duke knew what hit 'em VCU had taken a 72-70 lead with 2:07 to play. As Duke was busy missing free throws (Paulus & McRoberts missed 3 apiece down the stretch) and turning the ball over, Maynor was hitting clutch shots and playing great defense and ultimately winning the game for his team; it was his jumper from the top of the key with 1.8 seconds left that ended up being the game winning basket.

Ironically, with Buffalo-native and Duke tourney god Christian Laettner in the stands, the Devils had a chance to hit a game-winning shot when it got the ball back after Maynor's basket, one last chance for another miraclulous March finish.

But in this season of 'almosts' and 'not quites' for the Devils, the season finished just like it should have- with a thud.

By the way, will someone put out an APB on Jon Scheyer? Nobody's seen him in weeks.

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