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Duke 64, North Carolina 54: The night the Tar Heels' season died

CHAPEL HILL, NC -- As the final buzzer sounded at this utterly forgettable installment of college basketball's greatest rivalry, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski pointed toward a young man in the crowd standing a few rows behind the scorer's table. The tall, strapping fellow, whose barrel chest was bursting from under his light gray suit and light blue tie, pointed back at Coach K to acknowledge the gesture of respect.

The man in the crowd was Tyler Hansbrough, and the gentlemanly acknowledgement between him and Krzyzewski marked the final passing of two very different seasons at North Carolina. The first was the championship season of 2008-09, which had its final piece of business celebrated during halftime Wednesday as Hansbrough's No. 50 jersey took its rightful place in the hallowed rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center.

The second was the 2009-10 season, which suffered a more grisly death an hour later when the Blue Devils defeated North Carolina 64-54. (RECAP | BOX SCORE) I'd like to say this season should rest in peace, but we all know it won't.

Yes, North Carolina technically still has seven regular season games remaining plus the ACC tournament, but the loss to Duke dropped the Tar Heels to 2-7 in the ACC (13-11 overall), which means barring a miracle run in the ACC tournament the Tar Heels will not be playing in the NCAA tournament. The only thing they are playing for now is pride, but remember now, this is North Carolina. They don't hang banners around here for pride.

Let the record show the 2009-10 season did not expire without a fight. It actually had a detectable pulse midway through the second half, when North Carolina mustered a 43-39 lead with just under 12 minutes to play. But once Duke started driving to the rim and attacking the offensive glass, North Carolina had no answer. When Duke freshman center Mason Plumlee gathered a Kyle Singler miss and reverse dunked to break a 45-all tie at the 6:56 mark, it breathed new life into the Blue Devils, while North Carolina flatlined.

There were not a lot of tears at this funeral, just an air of resignation. RoyWilliams' voice did not quiver when he sat behind the microphone in the press room to deliver the eulogy. He simply recognized the obvious. "No moral victories, guys," he said. "There's none of that. We've got to play better."

Nor did the players even bother trying to pretend that the NCAA tournament was a realistic goal. I asked sophomore point guard Larry Drew if they could still make the tournament. "We're just going to play hard every game," he replied, stone-faced. Senior forward Marcus Ginyard also declined to take the bait. "There's no talk of the tournament unless you get better," he said. "If you give up now, you have no shot."

All of the factors that have conspired to kill what was once a promising season were on vivid display Wednesday night. The first was injuries. Williams noted afterward that the Heels' frontcourt depth was supposed to be their biggest asset, but two of their best big men, 7-foot sophomore Tyler Zeller and 6-10 freshman Travis Wear, missed Wednesday's game because they were hurt. During the game that sent the Heels on their downward spiral, the overtime loss at College of Charleston on Jan. 4, they played without two injured starters, Ginyard and 6-6 junior Will Graves. Sophomore forward Ed Davis sat out the loss at home to Wake Forest because of a sprained ankle, and he injured his wrist late in this game, which hampered his ability to shoot free throws down the stretch.

The absence of Zeller and Wear contributed to Duke's ability to snare a whopping 23 offensive rebounds. It also didn't help that North Carolina's guards were unable to stop Duke's dribble penetration. During the first 30 minutes, Duke had used its three-point shooting to stay within striking distance (the Blue Devils finished the game 9-of-18 from behind the arc). Over the decisive final stretch, when the Blue Devils went back to attacking the basket, North Carolina was unable to counter with buckets of its own. That allowed Duke to extend its lead, and Blue Devils senior guard Jon Scheyer landed the fatal blow with a fallaway three-pointer with 2:24 remaining to give the Blue Devils a 59-50 lead.

The 54 points North Carolina scored Wednesday night was the team's lowest in Williams' seven years as head coach at his alma mater. Their 34.5 percent field goal shooting and eight assists were season lows. You can put that on the tombstone. Here lies 2009-10. Couldn't score. Couldn't defend. Didn't compete. Good riddance.

"I thought we had as much intensity the first 30 minutes that we had the whole season," Williams said. "After that, their work on the offensive boards [was the difference]. They seemed to be more hungry to get there."

Bet you didn't know something could die from lack of hunger.

Alas, for now this team has no choice but to soldier on and complete its morbid procession. I asked Williams during his news conference where he goes from here. "Upstairs," he deadpanned. "Go home and watch the dadgum tape, come to practice tomorrow and see if we can get better."

But your team is 2-7 in the ACC. How do you keep their spirits up? "There's no difference. We've got to play," he said. "You can be 2-7 or 70-2. We've got to freaking practice, we've got a game, we've got to play."

The Tar Heels will play these last seven games not because they have so much pride, but because they have no choice. But make no mistake: There are no signs of life in Chapel Hill. On a night when Tyler Hansbrough gave the North Carolina faithful one last taste of blue heaven, the Duke Blue Devils tossed the last pieces of dirt on the Tar Heels' season from hell.

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