None of them saw it ending like this. Harry Giles in tears. Luke Kennard in disbelief. Matt Jones numb. Duke believed before the season it could win a national championship. After winning four games in four days to win the ACC title, Duke once again believed it could win a national championship.
None of them saw South Carolina scoring 65 points in the second half, either. The Blue Devils, with all their firepower, couldn’t keep up with the Gamecocks. And a season born of incredible optimism came to a stunning, premature end in what has to rank as one of the biggest second-round upsets in NCAA history, an 88-81 loss to South Carolina.
It wasn’t by seeding, and certainly not by location – thanks to House Bill 2, Duke faced a poisonous alliance of South Carolina and North Carolina fans, on the Gamecocks’ turf – but when the preseason favorite to win the national title goes out this early, it’s still historic.
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“You just never think this time will come,” Jones said. “Especially so abrupt.”
The North Carolina fans stuck around to gloat, and did they ever. Two hours after the Tar Heels pulled off an improbable comeback of their own to move on, Duke finally found a second-half deficit it couldn’t overcome.
In the micro, Duke couldn’t get moving against South Carolina’s physical defense. The plethora of fouls hurt Duke, with its seven-man rotation, more than South Carolina. And the Blue Devils could never get a stop when they needed one in the second half. None of that can be blamed on HB2; all of it could have happened in Greensboro.
In the bigger picture, Duke always struggled to make the most of its undeniable raw talent. Some of that was because of injuries, and there were many. Some of that was the sideshow that Grayson Allen became. Some of that was Mike Krzyzewski’s absence for back surgery. Nothing ever went smoothly for this team, especially on defense. Even the run in Brooklyn, when everything finally seemed to come together, saw Duke play a lot of zone.
With the loss, the 2015 national title starts to look more like an anomaly. Other than that exceptional group, Duke’s teams with one-and-done freshmen in key roles have not fared well in the tournament. With Austin Rivers in 2012, Duke lost in the first round. With Jabari Parker in 2014, Duke lost in the first round. With Jayson Tatum in 2017, Duke lost in the second round.
This team was supposed to be more like 2015, with freshmen Tatum and Giles and Marques Bolden and Frank Jackson all coming in together, and Tatum and Giles and Bolden presumably going out together, but with even more of a veteran core thanks to Allen and Kennard and the senior leadership of Jones and Amile Jefferson.
But Giles needed more surgery and was a shell of what he had been as the country’s No. 1 recruit, Bolden got hurt early and never really played and Tatum missed the start of the season with an injury of his own. Tatum was, by the end, a nearly unstoppable offensive force, but Giles’ impact was limited to a cameo in Brooklyn and Bolden – who at one point before the season was projected to be a starter – never really got off the bench.
Throw in all the other injuries, and Allen’s self-inflicted time in the spotlight, and Krzyzewski’s surgery, and it was always one thing after another. The parts never quite seemed to click on a consistent basis.
“This is one of most proud teams for me. All the stuff,” Krzyzewski said. “You all keep talking about expectations. A lot of these kids were just hurt at the start of the year and whatever. They never used it as an excuse, and they became close.”
And yet in Brooklyn, all the parts did click. Duke was an impressive machine, winning four games in four days, coming back from second-half deficits in its final three games in an improbable, historic run, only for everything to grind to a halt again two games later.
Even then, in the face of another late deficit, Duke’s players still believed they could pull it off. It wasn’t to be.
“We’ve done it before. We thought we could,” Jones said. “The shots just didn’t fall today. We couldn’t find enough energy to muster up that late push.”
So where they expected joy, or at least the thrill of moving on to play again, there were only tears. And that was fine with Krzyzewski.
“At the end of the season, I want my guys to either be crying because we’ve lost or crying because we’ve just won,” Krzyzewski said. “If you’re not doing one of those you never really became a team.”
They knew this would come to an end, they just never thought it would be this early, not amid the optimism of the offseason, not during the midseason turmoil, not after cutting down the nets in Brooklyn.
There were tears at the end, just not the tears they ever expected.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock