CHAPEL HILL — Duke sat in the visiting locker room at the Smith Center and stared the end of its season in the face.
The Blue Devils blew a 12-point first-half lead to North Carolina and fell to the Tar Heels, 82-78 in the season’s first matchup of sports’ biggest rivalry.
It was the second loss in a row for the Blue Devils, who blew a first-half lead against St. John’s over the weekend, surrendering a second-half run that was eerily similar to North Carolina’s on Thursday.
“At times this year, when we haven’t played well, we haven’t executed what we have diagrammed,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “At the start of the second half, we did not execute what we had diagrammed at half time. Then boom, boom, boom.”
Afterward, Duke players sat in their lockers, looking desolate, fighting back tears, after getting some tough truth from Krzyzewski: If things don’t change quickly, a game like this could mean the end of their season in a little over a month.
“This hurts,” said Marvin Bagley III, who had 15 points and 16 rebounds and sat, glaring, with a towel draped over his head. “Sitting in this locker room right now, it’s not a good feeling. Especially losing a game to this team.”
Duke, which had ranked among the nation’s best in offensive rebounding percentage heading into the game, dominated the boards early in the game, at one point leading the Tar Heels in rebounding at both ends of the floor. By the end of the game, North Carolina had built a six-rebound edge over the Blue Devils. At one point, the Heels got four offensive rebounds on one possession.
“I think the story through the last 15 minutes of the game was defensive rebounds by us,” Krzyzewski said. “They had 15 offensive rebounds in the second half. That was an incredible stat for them. It shows how hard they were going after it. … The big story was their offensive rebounding.”
“They came out and kicked our ass,” said Wendell Carter Jr., who was held to 10 points and five rebounds — his worst showing on the boards in 15 games. “They played a phenomenal game and dominated the offensive glass. They simply just attacked all of our weaknesses.”
While Krzyzewski focused on the rebounding issues as the major problem, red flags abounded for the Blue Devils. The defense, a work in progress all year, only forced two North Carolina turnovers, an all-time low for the Tar Heels.
Point guard Trevon Duval also struggled, turning the ball over four times and fouling out in just 20 minutes of playing time.
“Trevon,” Krzyzewski said then changed directions, “Grayson (Allen) had to handle the ball a lot, instead of playing off the ball. There are a number of things we can do better.”
Duval was the first player Krzyzewski substituted for in each half. He was pulled in favor of forward Jack White, just two minutes, 34 seconds into the game, and Krzyzewski pulled Duval three minutes, 20 seconds into the second half, in favor of Alex O’Connell.
Afterward, Duval was the one player not treating the game like a funeral. He joked with bench players and attempted, unsuccessfully, to lift the mood. He also jumped on social media to retweet highlight videos of his impressive first-half dunk.
He was alone in finding reason to celebrate after the loss.
“We kind of became individuals,” Carter said. “Most of our losses this year, we’ve become individuals. We say we need to play together, but we have to put it into action, instead of talking and saying things.”
“In 2015, we lost two in a row, and then we turned it around immediately,” Allen said. “This is … I don’t even know what loss this is now, but we’ve got to turn it around. We’re running out of time.”