In a year in which Duke was impossible to predict from start to finish, the shocking way its season ended was only fitting.
The Blue Devils lost to a team very few believed could beat them.
Having not won a single NCAA tournament game in 44 years prior to Friday night, South Carolina is about as tradition-bereft as Duke is tradition-rich. The seventh-seeded Gamecocks were far from a certain bet to end their drought this season either after skidding into the NCAA tournament with six losses in their previous nine games.
The same South Carolina team that only scored 53 points in an SEC quarterfinal loss to Alabama just nine days ago torched Duke for more than that in the second half alone on Sunday night. The Gamecocks overtook the Blue Devils eight minutes into the second half and maintained at least a two-possession lead the rest of the way en route to an 88-81 upset as stunning as any result from the NCAA tournament’s opening week.
The most obvious impact of South Carolina’s victory is that it leaves the NCAA tournament’s East Region in tatters. With top-seeded Villanova and second-seeded Duke both ousted early, one team among the unlikely quartet of Baylor, Florida, Wisconsin and South Carolina will reach this year’s Final Four.
Another ramification is that Duke’s loss leaves the vaunted ACC with only one team in the Sweet 16, an embarrassing outcome for a league hailed as the nation’s best for much of the season. The ACC landed nine teams in the NCAA tournament including six seeded fifth or better, yet North Carolina needed a late comeback earlier Sunday against Arkansas just to ensure even one was left standing.
But while the chaos in the East Region and the collapse of the ACC are significant, Duke’s demise is the bigger story. This was a Blue Devils team that began the season atop every major poll, that boasted a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans coming off its bench and that seemed to finally be rounding into peak form in March when it won four games in four days last week to capture the ACC tournament title.
That turned out to be fool’s gold, however, as South Carolina exposed that Duke hadn’t made as much progress as it seemed. An avalanche of injuries, the midseason back surgery that sidelined Mike Krzyzewski and the Grayson Allen tripping fiasco stunted the Blue Devils’ growth and kept them from jelling the way most teams do.
A lack of chemistry was an issue at times this season as Luke Kennard’s emergence while other guys were hurt left Duke with too many players who wanted the ball in their hands. Having no true point guard to set teammates up with easy shots was also a problem, as was the fact that the Blue Devils had some glaring interior defensive issues.
Harry Giles, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, never came close to fully recovering the explosiveness he had before his knee injuries. Marques Bolden, a fellow incoming McDonald’s All-American, fell out of Duke’s rotation during league play. Fifth-year senior Amile Jefferson was the only big man who did not look consistently lost defensively, and he could only do so much.
Those issues were on display on Sunday as South Carolina’s typically mediocre offense piled up 65 second-half points and scored 1.56 points per possession after halftime. SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell finished with 24 points and four of his teammates also tallied double figures.
Duke’s stars racked up plenty of points against South Carolina’s stingy defense, but the Blue Devils didn’t score very efficiently. Grayson Allen needed 13 shots to score 20 points. Jayson Tatum needed 12 to score 15. A foul-plagued Kennard only managed a single field goal before fouling out late in the second half.
You can argue that as a top-two seed Duke deserved better than playing a lower-seeded team less than 100 miles from its campus. The Blue Devils supporters were badly outnumbered in the stands between South Carolina fans and the North Carolina contingent that was eager to root against the Blue Devils.
But regardless of the venue, this loss was stunning, and maybe that’s the proper way to end one of the weirdest Duke seasons in history.
When we thought Duke would be dominant, the Blue Devils typically disappointed. When we thought Duke was an unsalvageable mess, the Blue Devils typically played their best.
Ultimately, that’s the legacy of this Duke team. From November to March, it remained an enigma.
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