College Basketball: UNC-Duke tonight

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 6, 2007

By Aaron Beard

Associated Press

DURHAM — For all the talk about the intensity of the North Carolina-Duke rivalry, DeMarcus Nelson seems more concerned — even fixated — on something else just a day before the teams’ latest meeting at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Ending the 16th-ranked Blue Devils’ two-game losing streak.

“This is a very critical moment for our team’s success,” Nelson said Tuesday. “The game is bigger than just playing North Carolina for us. It’s about our season.”

Just a few miles down the road in Chapel Hill, the mood is similar — albeit with a little less urgency — after the fifth-ranked Tar Heels’ surprising loss at North Carolina State.

“We’re wounded a little bit. They’re wounded a little bit,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

It’s an unusual dynamic for college basketball’s most intense rivalry, where losses are typically little more than hiccups on the way to Atlantic Coast Conference championships and trips to the Final Four. Wednesday night’s game will mark the first time since 2003 and only the fifth time since the 1975-76 season that both teams enter the game after a loss.

The Blue Devils (18-5, 5-4 ACC) are coming off a 68-66 overtime loss at Virginia and a 68-67 home loss to Florida State, and in both games the Blue Devils failed to score on the final play. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels (20-3, 6-2) lost the ACC lead with an 83-79 loss to the Wolfpack — a loss that had an irked Williams calling his team “fat and happy” afterward.

The last time Duke came into the game with two straight losses and North Carolina came in off one loss was 1989. And the three losses have changed the mood around a game that looked like it would be for the ACC lead just a week ago.

“This is always going to be the biggest game of the season for everybody, especially being so close and the rivalry and the tradition of the game,” North Carolina sophomore Marcus Ginyard said. “But nobody wants to get that extra loss in after a loss. It’s going to add to the intensity of the game. We’re both going to be fighting that much harder to stay above water.”

In a way, the Blue Devils are suffering most from heightened expectations created by their own success. They came into the season looking to replace graduated All-Americans J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams and had the youngest roster of Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure. Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus are the first sophomores to serve as team captains in program history, while Nelson, a junior, is the team’s grizzled veteran as its lone scholarship upperclassman.

But the Blue Devils have kept winning behind one of the nation’s most stingy defenses. And in three losses — a 69-67 overtime home loss to Virginia Tech being the other — Duke had a shot to win or tie on the final possession.

And yet, despite approaching the 20-win mark for the 11th straight year, the Blue Devils sound almost desperate to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 1999.

“When you’re in a hole like this, it’s not just about Duke-Carolina anymore,” freshman Gerald Henderson said. “It’s about your standing in the league and your season, because the NCAA tournament is not just given to you.”