It was uncharacteristic of Amile Jefferson.
With Duke trailing and South Carolina guard Duane Notice at the free throw line, Jefferson unleashed a scream of frustration.
It was his third foul.
Then, he fed into the heckling crowd as both of Notice’s shots went down to strengthen the Gamecocks’ lead.
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With 1 minute and 47 seconds left in the game, the season was slipping away from Duke.
The finality stung for Jefferson, whose record 150th and last game for the second-seeded Blue Devils was an 88-81 loss to No. 7 South Carolina on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
After leading the handshake line for his final time, all Jefferson could do was sit.
In the shower area of Duke’s locker room, the fifth-year forward stayed seated, still wearing his uniform, and didn’t emerge for media interviews.
“I think it probably all came to a head to him to realize how his college career is done,” said Jason Polykoff, Jefferson’s high school coach from his four years at Friends Central School in Pennsylvania. “He did not wanna lose. You could tell he understood the gravity of the game. To end up on the losing end, I think it all came to him. I think all that realization kind of hit him hard.”
Jefferson notched a double-double of 14 points and 15 rebounds against South Carolina, pouring every drop of heart into what became an abrupt ending to Duke’s season.
It was the only time in his five-year career the Blue Devils lost when he had a double-double; they were 7-0 before meeting South Carolina.
The 6-9, 224-pound forward will exit Duke as the only three-time captain in program history.
Polykoff, who is currently the head coach at Earlham College in Indiana, said as a freshman at Friends Central, Jefferson’s maturity was beyond his years.
“He probably was a little bit more talented than the senior that started above him, but the senior had earned his stripes,” Polykoff recalled. “The senior had played poorly for a stretch, and I decided to start Amile over the senior. The senior was a little upset about this situation, and Amile noticed that. Before the game, he said, ‘Coach, it’s not worth messing up the team chemistry. I don’t need to start, please put him back in the starting lineup.’ For a 15-year-old freshman to do something like that, that’s a big deal.”
Jefferson arrived at Duke averaging 19.9 points out of high school, a 2012 McDonald’s All-American who was the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year.
But his primary roles at Duke were to rebound and defend. He finished his career with 1,079 points and 944 rebounds. After matching a career-high six blocks against the Gamecocks, Jefferson captured 138 blocks, moving a spot ahead of Grant Hill to sixth all-time.
Polykoff said Jefferson had always put the team above himself, a leadership trait he continued at Duke.
Jefferson was always the first with his warmup gear off before games started. He was Duke’s vocal leader, too.
Before the Blue Devils held their Countdown to Craziness scrimmage in October, the player introductions were followed by individual dance numbers.
When it was Jefferson’s turn, he opted for a team dance to “Juju on that Beat,” a rap song released last year that sparks a popular line dance.
When Duke lost a game, he shouldered the responsibility, often saying he didn’t do enough to lead the team.
So after five years in a place where he was so beloved and admired, having it all crash down seemed to frustrate him. But even in the final moments, he stood tall for his teammates.
With 41 seconds left in Duke’s season, freshman forward Javin DeLaurier picked up a foul to send Gamecocks guard Rakym Felder to the line. South Carolina made 21 of 23 free throws in the second half, where it shot 71.4 percent. Jefferson reassuringly tapped DeLaurier on the chest as the rookie came off the floor.
“(He was) just trying to do what he’s been doing all year, just being an upperclassmen,” DeLaurier said. “He was trying to be a senior leader. He was just a little disappointed we came up short at the end.”
This moment could have come last year during Jefferson’s senior season, but, when a broken right foot from practice in December 2015 sidelined him the rest of the year, he was granted a redshirt. He played nine games last season. He also missed two games this season with a bruised bone in his right foot.
But Jefferson, part of the 2015 championship team, got a chance to come back this season for one last ride with a group that in the preseason was favored to win the national title again. A key similarity to this year’s group and the one in 2015, Jefferson said, was the versatility.
He had been through it all with Duke, the “highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows,” as he described it, and was grateful for his final season.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan