Matt Jones was the last from Duke to exit the floor.
He walked listlessly back to the locker room, looking up at the scoreboard of Bon Secours Wellness Arena upon turning the corner for his last time in a Blue Devils uniform.
“It was almost, like, surreal,” senior guard Jones said after seventh-seeded South Carolina upset No. 2 seed Duke, 88-81, in the NCAA tournament round of 32 on Sunday in Greenville, S.C. “You never think that this time would come, especially so abrupt. I think that was the main thing, just walking off the floor like, we didn’t attain our goal.”
An early postseason exit was supposed to be the worst-case scenario, a myth that Duke, the preseason’s No. 1-ranked team with a star-studded freshman class, was supposed to escape after being the first team to win four straight games to claim an ACC tournament championship.
The ACC crown erased any lingering doubt of a Duke team that had incredible peaks but severely daunting valleys.
Despite the lows of the season that included numerous player injuries, the one-game suspension of their star player Grayson Allen, and the four-week absence of Krzyzewski, who was recovering from back surgery, the Blue Devils seemed to have put it all together at the right time.
It happened in March instead of October, but the Blue Devils had pulled together the tools capable of perhaps capturing a national title – something coach Mike Krzyzewski in December defined as a “moment” and something the hall-of-fame coach has won five times.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t win tonight. But at the end of the season, I want my guys to either be crying because we’ve lost or crying because we’ve won,” he said after coaching his NCAA-best 119th tournament game Sunday. “You all keep talking about expectations. I mean, look, a lot of these kids were just hurt at the start of the year and whatever. And they never used it as an excuse.
“I wish I could keep coaching them this year, but that’s not going to happen.”
The last time Duke lost its round of 32 tournament game was in 2008, a second straight early exit from the tournament for the Blue Devils, who had advanced to the round of 16 every year from 1998 to 2006. Since 2008, Duke has made it to the Sweet 16 six times (2009, ’10, ’11, ’13, ’15, ’16), won two national championships (2010, ’15) and lost in its first game twice (2012, ’14).
Duke has the best tournament winning percentage at 75.5 (108-35) and had a group of players this season poised for a deep run.
Instead, a South Carolina team that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973, is moving on to the Sweet 16.
“I think we were hitting our strides at the end of the year. That’s the only thing you can ask of a team,” junior guard Grayson Allen said. “In the tournament, you have to win six tough games to become national champions. I know that was our ultimate goal, but each game gets tougher and South Carolina was a very tough team.
“It’s nothing that we weren’t able to accomplish, it’s what they were able to accomplish and what they stopped us from doing.”
The Gamecocks, who made seven shots from the field for 20 percent shooting in the first half, came out defensively sound in the second. The efforts created offense, as they scored 65 points, making 20 shots for 71.4 percent shooting in the second half.
Jones said South Carolina’s physicality got to the Blue Devils. Duke’s leading scorer Luke Kennard, a sophomore guard, picked up his fourth foul with 12:03 left to play, sending P.J. Dozier to the line for a three-point play. That free throw gave South Carolina a 49-48 lead it never lost.
Kennard eventually fouled out, one of three Duke players, including Jones and freshman wing Jayson Tatum, to do so.
Tatum hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 remaining, closing in at 76-69 and giving Duke a glimmer of hope. But South Carolina continued to produce.
“Yeah, we believed,” Jones said. “I thought about that, just the way they (South Carolina) were jelling offensively, it crosses your mind, but you try not to to let it affect you. Today, we just couldn’t find the energy to muster up a late push.”
And it wasn’t just the push against the Gamecocks that never happened.
It was the Blue Devils’ attempt to push through a barrage of unforeseen injuries and situations that twisted their season into directions that conflicted with their goals. Even down to the final game, Allen, who entered the season a returning starter, was coming off the bench after nursing an ankle injury.
They were constantly adjusting.
With the flurry of distractions, Duke rarely had consistency. The efforts couldn’t culminate into what Duke had its sights set on at the beginning of the season.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan