There was nothing to smile about on the Duke bench during last year’s upset to the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks.
Chronicle File Photo
There was nothing to smile about on the Duke bench during last year’s upset to the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks.

Traffic around the Greensboro Coliseum can back up for miles during big events like the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. But when the bus carrying the Duke basketball team pulled out late on the evening of March 16, 2012, it stopped for nothing. It’s not difficult to imagine the occupants’ anxiety to leave the Coliseum behind as the harsh lights of police cruisers escorted the bus around traffic and through red lights until it reached I-85.

As the coach bus covered the 53-mile distance from Greensboro back to Cameron Indoor Stadium, no one said a word.

“It was just quiet,” Quinn Cook remembered Tuesday afternoon. “We were shocked.”

The shock came at the hands of the 15th-seeded Lehigh Mountain Hawks, who had sent Duke packing in the Round of 64 for just the third time out of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 28 March Madness appearances. And it was not a last-second miracle for Lehigh, either, as the Patriot League champions had led for most of the game before pulling ahead for good with more than eight minutes left in the game.

Cook shot 1-for-5 from the field in the game. Seth Curry was 1-for-9. Andre Dawkins made just 2-of-9 shots. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s perfect 9-for-9 night, the team shot 30.6 percent, including 6-for-26 from long range.

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“That was probably the worst time in my playing career,” Curry said. “I wasn’t able to move past it for about two to three weeks after that.”

Many of the players felt less for themselves than for the team’s lone senior, Miles Plumlee, whose Duke career had come to a sudden end.

“I can just remember Miles,” Cook said. “Just Miles, being the last person on the bus. He had his head down. I think Miles didn’t get the credit that he deserved…. Just to have a great teammate like that go out on a note like that was very frustrating for me.”

Curry could not even bring himself to watch any of the rest of the Tournament, but as with any sports team, grieving over last season could only last so long.

“For the first few days, there wasn’t really much to say,” Curry recalled. “We were out. Guys were kind of depressed and things like that. After that, Coach really brought the guys coming back together, just saying remember and move forward. This is a lesson that everybody has to learn.”

This year, as the second-seeded Blue Devils once again look forward to a matchup with a No. 15 seed, the lessons of the past will serve as motivation for the tournament that lies ahead. Krzyzewski reached even further into his voluminous memory banks to provide an example of the way that teams can grow from the defeat of a previous season.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, the long-time coach told the story of Danny Meagher, a member of Krzyzewski’s first recruiting class and, in Krzyzewski’s words, “as tough a kid as has ever played” at Duke. When Meagher was a senior, a year ahead of then-juniors Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson, the No. 3-seed Blue Devils lost a surprise 74-73 upset to 11th-seeded Boston College in the second round of the tournament.

“Everybody was down, but there was only one kid who was unbelievably emotional, and that was Danny,” Krzyzewski said. “And he basically was like someone—you see where people, when someone dies, they’re throwing themselves on the gravesite, they’re so emotional—that’s how Danny was. And Danny said, ‘You guys do not understand. You don’t understand.’ He kept repeating, ‘You don’t understand....’ ‘This is it for me. This is it. It’s no more.’ He’s crying his eyes out.” The significance of that raw moment was not lost on Alarie, Bilas and their teammates.

“It’s one of the reasons we almost won the national championship the next year with that group, because those juniors then understood the sense of finality, that this could be over. And it’s the culture of our program that we try to let our guys know about the past, that these things have happened, and to remember.”

But Krzyzewski emphasized that even as he utilizes Duke history to educate and motivate his players, it is equally critical not to let the past infringe upon the team’s experience of the moment at hand.

“You bring up that you didn’t play well last year in the first round, but you don’t belabor it…. You talk about it, like we weren’t ready, or we weren’t as together, or whatever—whatever the heck happened,” he said. “We want to be in this moment, and not bring a lot of stuff from other moments, including championships, because that might make you soft.”

Curry confirmed that he believes the pain the team endured last year has brought it “more together” as it embarks on another title run with much of its 2011-12 roster still intact. And with three star seniors’ careers on the line in each of up to six more games for this year’s Blue Devils, the team is especially committed to ensuring that last year’s unceremonious exit does not repeat itself.

“I don’t want the three seniors to go out like that,” Cook said.