By Steve Kelly
After everything. some truly thought it could end with a Duke net-cutting in Phoenix, a fairy-tale finish after more than a few bumps.
But it was destined to be a crushing second-round upset to a No. 7 seed no one thought deserved to be a No. 7 seed in a virtual road game, one that college basketball fans will point to as one of the greatest stunners in NCAA tournament history.
Or, alternatively: South Carolina 88, No. 2 Duke 81.
Duke’s season ended with a thud on the court, and in a silent locker room players stared at a coach trying to remind his team that they did, really, have a season worth remembering fondly.
That it’s not a failure just because it’s ending without even so much as a trip to the Sweet 16. That it’s not a magnificent disappointment because this team was ranked No. 1 in the nation to start the season. That it’s not, well, what everyone on the outside will say about them.
“I told them I love these guys, and I’m proud of them,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “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 just won.
“If you’re not doing one of those, that means you never really became a team, that it was never really that important. And for these guys — hey we’re a really good team. This is one of the teams (I’m most proud of) because all the stuff.
“You all keep talking about expectations. 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. And they became close. So I just told them I love them and I’m proud of them.
“I wish I could keep coaching them this year, but that’s not going to happen.”
Luke Kennard, Duke’s best and most consistent player, kept his gaze low and his voice softL
“Your mood is definitely down,” Kennard said. “You’re ashamed of the loss and the season being over. It was definitely a quiet atmosphere. We were down, but Coach was proud of us for what we’ve accomplished this year.”
He paused, thinking about the Atlantic Coast Conference championship run he and his teammates finished off just last week, though it feels like a lifetime ago.
“I think, overall, we had a good year,” Kennard said, staring at his feet.
And not only did the Blue Devils come up short, they came up way short. The last time they failed to advance out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend was 2014 — when they were upset by No. 14 seed Mercer in the Round of 64.
And, much like that infamous blemish on an otherwise enormously successful basketball tradition, the sting of this loss won’t go away anytime soon, either.