GREENVILLE, S.C.—After his team warded off Troy to win by 22 despite a few defensive lapses, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made an observation that seemed prophetic when the Blue Devils’ season came to a crashing end Sunday night.
“We’re a good defensive team. I don’t think we’re a great defensive team,” he said.
The transformation into a great defensive team capable of contending for a national championship never came for Duke and its year-ending loss epitomized why a team oozing with talent at every position is heading home after the NCAA tournament’s first weekend.
The good unquestionably showed during the early minutes Sunday.
For the first 20 minutes, the story of the Blue Devils’ matchup with South Carolina was the opposite of what most expected. Instead of the gritty, physical Gamecocks slowing down Duke’s dominant attack, it was the Blue Devil defense that was controlling much of the game. South Carolina made just seven shots before intermission—good for only 23 points and a seven-point deficit as the teams went to the locker room.
Despite giving the ball away 13 times and allowing the Gamecocks to collect 12 offensive boards in the first half, Duke was in control of the game. The defense tallied six blocks in the first 20 minutes—five came from graduate student Amile Jefferson—and ran South Carolina off the 3-point line as the Gamecocks shot just 3-of-17 from long distance.
Even when South Carolina found open space, its inability to knock down wide open shots at every level of the court made a furious comeback like the one that transpired seem almost impossible.
Yet as the Gamecock defense stayed physical in the second half, the Blue Devils’ faded into a haze of foul trouble, blank stares and retreating feet as it has so many times this season—and their opponent took advantage.
“It was a physical game but they didn’t give up,” freshman Frank Jackson said. “I think we were expecting them to kind of lie down, but they popped back and kept going at us.”
After shooting a miserable 20.0 percent from the field in the first half, South Carolina put Duke’s inconsistent defense on its heels and generated open looks all over the court with SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell as the focal point.
The Gamecocks missed just eight shots in the second half, hit 4-of-5 triples and shot 91.3 percent from the charity stripe to storm past the Blue Devils. Although Duke limited itself to just five turnovers after halftime against a relentless South Carolina defense, it was the Blue Devils’ inability to slow one of the worst offenses in the field of 68 that led to its demise.
Duke finished the year ranked 48th in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense metric—national championship teams have finished in the top 15 in 14 of the last 15 years.
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The Gamecocks got 24 points and five assists from Thornwell, but it was a pair of role players that hurt the Blue Devils in the final 20 minutes of Duke’s season.
South Carolina’s Duane Notice and Chris Silva poured in 27 combined points after halftime as each finished with 17 on the night. Silva also grabbed 10 rebounds, including five on the offensive end, as the Gamecocks attacked in the lane time and time again en route to 30 points in the paint.
“They come at you for the whole game,” junior Grayson Allen said. “We fought all the way through, but their defense gets to you. They’re very tough defensively, and I think that’s what really kept them in the game.”
Despite Allen and company started the game by making five of their first seven 3-pointers, South Carolina did not panic defensively.
Even as its offensive display made one wonder whether head coach Frank Martin’s side would reach 50 points for the game, the Gamecocks used their physicality to start chipping away at a 10-point deficit and impose their will.
“They not only are good technique-wise, but they add heart,” Krzyzewski said of South Carolina’s defense. “They add toughness. They add all the intangibles that go with great technique. And then they’re all committed to it. They played it at a high level and the game was a very physical game.”
That toll manifested itself in the foul column.
The teams combined for six fouls before the game’s first media timeout. And the Blue Devils and Gamecocks finished the night with 48 fouls between them—five players, including Matt Jones, Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard, fouled out of the game.
Despite lofty expectations entering the season, Duke’s defense never seemed to be able to match its full-throttle offense. Even though the Blue Devils held opponents to 70 points or fewer seven times since Feb. 4, Duke ranked below 14 of the other 15 top-four seeds in the NCAA tournament in adjusted defensive efficiency.
And with their season on the line, the Blue Devils had no answer as the Gamecocks found a rhythm.
In a seven-minute span starting just before the 12-minute mark of the second half, South Carolina hit seven of its 10 field goal attempts, busting the game wide open from a 48-all deadlock into a 10-point advantage at 68-58 despite some impressive shot-making on the other end of the court.
With a deeper bench and plenty of support from a rowdy Gamecock crowd that traveled a little more than 100 miles to what was supposed to be a neutral-site game, South Carolina never gave the Blue Devil defense a chance to catch its breath.
“It’s tough,” Allen said. “When they got out to that lead, we thought we could come back, because we’ve come back in games before, but they kept the lead…and they did a great job of knocking down their free throws.”
The Gamecocks got basket after basket, nearly tripling their first-half output as they put up an eye-popping 65 points in the second half—by far the most Duke allowed in a half this season.
Even with the Blue Devils’ two best defensive players in Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson fighting tooth and nail all year on that end of the court, injuries and a lack of continuity across the board prevented Duke’s defense from evolving as many thought it could.
And as Jones sat in his uniform for the final time after the game, one could not help but wonder how Krzyzewski will fill their shoes defensively moving forward.
“I’m kind of numb right now,” Jones said. “I gave everything I had the last four years.”