DURHAM, N.C. -- He looked just like the kid in the Life Savers commercial, sitting on the top row of the bleachers staring at the court as if he hoped the memory of the just-ended game would go away if he stayed at the scene of the crime. Danny Ferry has always been mature well beyond his years. But now, in the near-empty gym, he wore the expression of a hurt kid.

"There is no way we can lose that game," he said, real anger in his voice even though he was speaking softly. "Fourteen points up at home, you just don't lose. We just fell apart, that's all. There's no excuse for it."

He stopped for a moment as if finished. Then he shook his head again. "What a terrible way to lose. Awful."

Losing is something with which Ferry is not very familiar. He played on teams that won big for four years at DeMatha High School and in his three seasons at Duke the Blue Devils are 77-15, including 16-3 this year. But Saturday, they blew that 14-point lead and lost to N.C. State. Ferry scored 21 points, but only two of them came in the last 10 minutes, largely because State went to a trick defense and collapsed around him, denying him the ball.

That happens when you are the best player and now, as a junior, Ferry has emerged not only as Duke's best player, but as one of the best in the nation. He has done it the way he does most things: quietly, without a lot of fanfare, but forcefully. Last season, as a sophomore, when he led a surprising Duke team to 24 victories and a spot in the final 16, Ferry led the Devils in scoring, rebounding and assists. This season he is averaging 18.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists.

"Danny makes every big play for us," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "If we need a three-point shot {26 for 61}, he makes it. If we need a rebound, he gets it. If we need him to open things up with his passing, he does it. We knew he could be a special player when he got here if he worked hard. He's done the work and this is the result."

Ferry knows he is a good player. He understands basketball and he knows how versatile he is at 6-10. But he isn't satisfied. "Where do I need to improve?" he asked, answering a question. "Everywhere." Best of a Talented Bunch

Ferry's story is a familiar to most basketball people because of his family. He is the second basketball-playing son of Washington Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry and, it is now apparent, the most talented member of a talented family. His father played at the University of St. Louis and in the NBA for 10 years. His older brother Bobby passed up N.C. State to play at Harvard. By the time Bobby was a Harvard senior, Danny was a DeMatha senior courted by every university in the nation.

The older brother did have one shining moment, though. That season, when Harvard played at Duke, he knew that the ever-clever Duke students would have something special prepared for him since the recruiting battle for Danny was down to Duke and North Carolina. So, when it was his turn to be introduced, with permission from Coach Frank McLaughlin, he sent a teammate out in his place -- a black teammate. For once, the Duke students were rendered speechless, one of the great upsets in basketball history.

That came long after Bobby and Danny stopped playing one-on-one because the games always ended in fights. And it came long after Bob Ferry stopped trying to be objective about his son's skills.

"I can't tell you what kind of pro I think he'll be, I'm not capable of it," the father said Sunday as he sat in a corner of the Duke locker room watching his son deal with wave after wave of reporters. "I do know this: He's gotten better. Last year, he was strictly an outside player. Now, he has real postup moves. He's worked on that with the coaches and you can see the difference. What will happen in the pros, I don't know."

Others do. "He's a first-round pick right now," said Portland Trail Blazers scout Brad Greenberg. "He can shoot, he can pass, he can run and he can catch. He needs to get stronger, but he will. He's still only a junior. He's also the kind of kid you want because he knows the game and he'll work at it."

The biggest improvement in Ferry's game this season has been his consistency as a shooter. Last year, because he felt he had to produce points on a team that had lost its four leading scorers, he often forced shots and shot off-balance. He only shot 44.9 percent from the field. Now, with some help from the old man, he's shooting 51.2 percent.

"When Danny came home for Christmas this year he came over to work out after the Bullets practiced," Bob Ferry said. "I was watching him shoot and I noticed that he was turning his right foot in a little when he shot. It isn't that big a deal but I think since then he's been conscious of it and he's been squaring up a little better."

That and knowing when not to shoot have helped Ferry considerably. "Last year I shot off-balance a lot and when I did I probably only hit 20 or 25 percent of those shots," he said. "I've gotten away from that this year and it's helped. But I've still got a long way to go."

Not that long a way. Ferry has been a precocious player since he first got to DeMatha and played a key role in winning the city championship as a freshman. He is a good (but not great) student. He is unfailingly polite, articulate, handsome and soon-to-be-wealthy. He also has his father's wise-guy sense of humor.

"Danny's the funniest guy on the team," said Billy King, the team captain. "When he was a freshman, with all the seniors, he was quiet. But now, he's one of the leaders and he loves getting on guys."

That side of him clearly comes from his father. Bob Ferry loves to give people a hard time. Last weekend, he drove to Duke to watch the Blue Devils play N.C. State and Notre Dame. After the State loss, Danny said he expected his father to get on him about going to the boards more that night over dinner. The next day, after the Notre Dame victory, someone asked Bob Ferry if he had done that. "No, I didn't," he said. "But if he's expecting it, I better."

A moment later, Danny walked over. "When are you gonna start rebounding," the father said loudly.

"I know, I know," Danny said, pained at his obvious deficiency.

"You know who you rebound like?" Bob Ferry continued. "Your mother. You rebound like your mother."

Then he cracked up before Danny could think for another minute he was serious.

Becoming 'The' Man

In truth, there is only one thing left for Ferry to do at Duke and that won't be easy: win a national championship. As a freshman, he was a key reserve during the Blue Devils' remarkable 37-3 season that produced an NIT preseason title, the ACC regular season and tournament championships and a trip to the national championship game, which ended in three-point loss to Louisville. That season was a perfect bridge for Ferry between the pressures of stardom in high school and college. He was highly visible, very important, but he wasn't the man. As a sophomore, though, and now, that is exactly what he is.

"I feel comfortable with this team," he said in the aftermath of the State loss. "Today shouldn't have happened because the best thing about this team is that we pull together in moments of crisis during games. Today, for some reason we didn't do that."

Twenty-four hours later, Duke was in trouble again against Notre Dame. But King kept Duke in the game by shutting down David Rivers. And, down the stretch, when points were toughest, the offense revolved around Ferry: a lob pass inside to Robert Brickey for a layup; a spinning layup off a postup move and, finally, a three-pointer that built the lead to nine and sealed the issue.

"Today was Billy's day," Krzyzewski said. "But for us to be good, whether it's for one game or five games or a whole season, Danny's got to be good." He smiled. "Fortunately for us, he almost always is."