GREENVILLE, S.C. – Amid the annual bracket busters and unexpected tournament runs, there’s one constant that determines a team’s success during the frenzy that surrounds The NCAA Tournament: experience.
Duke senior forward Amile Jefferson has been here before. He’s endured a gut-wrenching, second round loss to Mercer in 2014 and then basked in the glow of a National Championship in 2015. But when Jefferson and the Blue Devils lost in last year’s Sweet 16 against Oregon, they went back to Durham, North Carolina, with a taste of bitterness, one that was supposed to provide motivation for Jefferson in this year’s tournament.
But when the final buzzer sounded Sunday, Jefferson sank with despair, having realized he played his last game for Duke.
Despite Jefferson’s heroic performance (14 points, 15 rebounds and 6 blocks), the Devils fell to South Carolina at Bob Secours Wellness Arena, 88-81.
With 14:52 left remaining in the game, it was clear experience was proving to be a detriment for the Blue Devils, as they began to settle in the comfort of the game. They were committing unnecessary fouls on the defensive end and allowed the Gamecocks to take command of the game on the opposite end.
The Gamecocks took the lead, and Duke struggled to stop their offense. Despite the Gamecocks ranking 136th in scoring and shooting 20 percent from the field heading into the half, the Duke defense allowed them to score off offensive rebounds (15). The Gamecocks shot over 60 percent and scored 65 points in the second half.
Beyond performances from guards Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum, who combined for 35 points and 6 rebounds, the Blue Devils couldn’t establish themselves offensively. Their play was neutralized, as the Gamecocks held them to 11 assists and forced them to commit 18 turnovers.
“They’re a very good defensive team,” said Grayson Allen. “It’s not an easy task to score on them.”
The Duke turnovers ignited the Gamecocks’ scoring run, as they scored in transition and pushed the lead to double digits with three minutes remaining in the game. Despite a hard-fought effort from Jefferson, who helped reduce the deficit to five points with 26 seconds remaining, Duke couldn’t break the Gamecocks’ grip on victory.
The loss is one Jefferson has seen before, and possibly one he may never forget. But the contributions he and other veterans have provided for this team won’t be forgotten either. Despite the disappointing loss, coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged how appreciative he is of his players.
“I absolutely love coaching this group,” said coach Kryzewski. “I wish I could coach them more, and they did a hell of a job for us.”