GREENVILLE, S.C.—A week after riding a wave of momentum to a historic ACC championship, a similar wave was developing in hostile territory.
But instead of carrying the Blue Devils, it was casting a large shadow over the team—it was also Gamecock red.
No. 7 seed South Carolina used a second-half avalanche to overcome a 10-point deficit and shock second-seeded Duke 88-81 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena Sunday night, feeding off the energy from a rowdy crowd less than 100 miles from its campus to put a horrendous first half in the rearview mirror. After making just 7-of-35 shots in the opening 20 minutes to trail by seven points, the Gamecocks shot 71.4 percent in the second half to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 1973.
SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell led the charge for South Carolina with 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. He also shut down the Blue Devils' leading scorer—sophomore Luke Kennard, who tied a season-low with just six field-goal attempts—and got plenty of help from forward Chris Silva, who added 17 points and 10 rebounds as the Gamecocks dominated in the second half.
Although Duke finished with five players in double figures led by Grayson Allen, it never really threatened after a Duane Notice triple made it 60-53 with 8:52 remaining. The loss was just the second in the Round of 32 for head coach Mike Krzyzewski's team since 1997—the Blue Devils were 15-1 in the same round entering Sunday night.
“The physicality ramped up again in the second half and we weren’t able to match that,” said senior Matt Jones, one of three Duke players who fouled out. “When the shots stopped falling, we had to find other ways to win, which we have, but today, we just couldn’t muster enough energy to really make that late push.”
Duke (28-9) was in control early on, using an 11-0 run to go up 24-14 as it held the Gamecocks (24-10) without a point for more than six minutes. But South Carolina's tenacity—head coach Frank Martin's team entered the day in the top five in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency metric—prevented the Blue Devils from building a bigger lead.
Against the Gamecocks' pressure, Duke coughed it up 13 times in the first half and had four players pick up at least two fouls.
“We thought we played good defense in the first half. But they did, too,” Allen said. “It's not an easy task to score on them, and that's what allowed them to keep the game closer in the first half. And that's what really opened it up in the second half for them, too, is their defense.”
Even after the Blue Devils went ahead 35-25 early in the second half, Duke looked out of sorts because of foul trouble.
That's when South Carolina found its offense.
With Duke on its heels, Thornwell and company were relentless in transition, pushing the ball up after Blue Devil turnovers and misses and sharing the ball like a completely different team after intermission. A 14-3 run capped by a Silva dunk gave the Gamecocks their first lead since the opening minutes at the 15:19 mark, and even with Allen and freshman Frank Jackson knocking down big shots, Duke's inability to get stops ended its season in shocking fashion.
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“We knew that they were a physical team. It was a really physical game and some things didn’t go our way,” said Kennard, who went just 1-of-6 from the field to get his 11 points and also fouled out. “They hit shots as well, they were able to knock down shots, make plays. They got stops, turned us over and they’re a good team, so they got momentum off of those turnovers.”
Krzyzewski's team also went ice cold down the stretch, not making a shot for more than five minutes as its opponent lived at the free throw line.
Notice found his rhythm from long range with the Blue Devil defense scrambling, and P.J. Dozier also knocked down a few key jumpers to keep a rattled Duke team from making a big push. Despite a double-double from graduate student Amile Jefferson—who did his best to galvanize his teammates in the physical contest—the Blue Devils could not find a way to keep South Carolina contained in their zone or man defenses.
As Martin used nine players for at least nine minutes to deal with the Gamecocks' own foul trouble, Duke was left trying to cobble together stops and serviceable offensive possessions as its inconsistent reserves looked on.
The depth many expected entering the season never developed, and it caught up to the Blue Devils in the worst way imaginable. Krzyzewski was essentially stuck with a six-man rotation Sunday as freshman Harry Giles only played three minutes after halftime.
“I wish we had some of that tape that doesn't let water into the boat…. The game was very complex in the second half with the fouls,” Krzyzewski said. “We got worn down. It's the most physical game we've been in all year.”
Duke will now head into the offseason with plenty of question marks following a third opening-weekend loss as a top-three seed since 2012. Jefferson and senior Matt Jones will depart, freshmen Jayson Tatum and Giles are expected to declare for the NBA Draft and Kennard and Allen could also test their draft stock in the coming months.
But after a roller-coaster season defined by a preseason No. 1 ranking, a slew of injuries, unmet expectations and the thrill of an ACC title, the Blue Devils were only focused on each other with their locker room soaked with season-ending tears two weeks earlier than many thought it would be.
“I’m grateful for this season, all these guys—just the love I have for them,” freshman Frank Jackson said. “We’ve been through a lot this year and I wouldn’t want to go to battle with any other guys.”