GREENSBORO — Ryan Kelly walked past a table of food in the Duke locker room, reached for a plastic container filled with a salad and then pulled his hand back. He stood there next to that table for a moment, looking like he wasnt really sure what to do, or where to go.
Kelly, the Blue Devils junior forward, surveyed the scene around him following Dukes 75-70 loss against Leigh in the NCAA tournament on Friday night. Many of his teammates sat in their lockers with tears in their eyes. Some buried their faces in their hands.
Kelly felt helpless in the moment, just as he did during a game he sat out while recovering from the sprained right foot he suffered nearly a week and a half earlier. He took a couple of seconds to consider a question from a reporter and then spoke, softly.
This sucks, he said at first, pausing. To not be able to give to the team what I feel like Ive done for a lot of the year. And I dont know it sucks.
Kelly averaged 11.8 points per game this season and his contributions had been a major reason for Dukes surprising success. At 6-foot-11, he could use his height on the interior, and he often used his shooting touch on the perimeter.
Would things have been different, had Kelly played on Friday night? Could the Blue Devils have avoided becoming the sixth No. 2 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose against a No. 15 seed?
You know I dont know that that matters, Kelly said. That doesnt really matter. Like I said I wish I was there. And to get hurt at this time of the year is disappointing. But we all had confidence, and I had confidence in my teammates. And you know, its just unfortunate the way the season ended.
Kelly suffered his foot injury last Tuesday, days before the start of the ACC tournament. He missed the Blue Devils two games in that tournament, and then sat on the bench, dressed in uniform, on Friday night. He still had his black pullover on inside the locker room, having never taken it off during the game.
Kelly had faith things would turn out differently on Friday night. Leigh took the lead for good with 8 minutes, 21 seconds to play and it gradually increased that lead to five, and then to seven in the final minutes. But Kelly had been a part of shocking Duke rallies before.
There was the one that came at North Carolina, when Duke overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 150 seconds. And the one against N.C. State, when Duke rallied from a 20-point deficit with about 11 minutes to play. On Friday night Kelly waited.
That certainly gave us confidence, you know, down the stretch that weve been in this position before, Kelly said. But you know, we cant put ourselves in those positions. We kept doing it. One time it was going to come back to bite us.
It did on Friday. While Kelly spoke, he and his teammates could hear Leigh celebrate down the hall. That food in the Duke locker room, meanwhile, sat untouched, 22 pizza small boxes still waiting to be opened. No one could eat.