The season that never looked the way Duke wanted it to look ended in a fittingly unglamorous way, the Blue Devils losing what was essentially a road game to a No. 7 seed that, until Friday, hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973.
South Carolina, one of the worst shooting teams in the tournament, shot 20 percent from the field in the first half, and yet it still ousted Duke from the Big Dance, 88-81, on Sunday, delivering the Gamecocks their biggest win in decades while sending Duke home with a devastating loss to end a devastatingly disappointing season in which it started the season as the overwhelming No. 1 choice but ended with its third pre-Sweet 16 tournament exit in the past six years.
It happened in front of a pro-South Carolina crowd in Greenville, with Gamecocks fans in their home state joined by Duke-hating North Carolina fans -- who had just watched the Tar Heels beat Arkansas -- to form a crowd largely united against the Blue Devils. Duke being forced to play in what amounted to a road environment was unique for a No. 2 seed, and especially unique for Duke, but the Blue Devils have nobody to blame but themselves after playing a horrific second half in which their defense collapsed.
South Carolina shot 7-for-35 from the field in the first half and trailed by seven at the break. Ranked 306th nationally in effective field goal percentage entering the game, it didn't have the profile of a team prepared to make a comeback against a talented team like Duke. Nevertheless, the Gamecocks then shot an absurd 20-for-28 in the second half, allowing them to jump from 23 first-half points to 65 second-half points -- more second-half points than they scored in 10 entire games this season and more second-half points than any team has ever scored against Mike Krzyzewski, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
After the horrendous first half, South Carolina didn't waste any time staging the comeback. It took under five minutes for them to erase the deficit and take the lead, on an alley-oop from SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell to Chris Silva. Silva finished with a double-double, while Thornwell had 24 points.
Duke's Luke Kennard responded with a three, but South Carolina set the tone for the second half with its own response, as Thornwell buried his own three eight seconds later. The teams traded leads for a few minutes, only for South Carolina to never trail in the final 12 minutes. It gave up 51 second-half points, but it lived up to its defensive reputation by holding the Blue Devils to 41.5 percent shooting from the field and forcing 18 turnovers.
With the takeaways, 15 offensive rebounds and the ridiculous shooting pace in the second half, South Carolina was able to do the unthinkable, knocking a Final Four favorite Duke out of the tournament in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973 … when the bracket consisted of only 25 teams.
The unusual facts about the result are seemingly never-ending, because Duke's loss also means that the ACC -- which had a strong season and produced nine tourney teams -- will have only one team in the Sweet 16, South No. 1 seed North Carolina. Everyone else has already been sent home, including a talented Duke squad that seemed to finally hit its stride with four straight wins to claim the ACC tournament title. But instead of Duke and Villanova being on a collision course in the East Regional in Madison Square Garden next weekend, the East bracket will include Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor and South Carolina.
Given its history, and given its rough finish to the regular season (3-6 in its final nine games), South Carolina is the most surprising name of all, the team that only 4.8 percent of participants in ESPN's Tournament Challenge picked to advance to the Sweet 16.
Duke's season was marred by injuries, drama and inconsistency, and while there was bad luck involved, many of the issues were self-inflicted. Still, it had reasonable hopes of turning the ACC tournament run into a deep NCAA run, given the presence of Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum on a roster loaded with blue-chip talent.
On Sunday, however, South Carolina showed that a Duke that reached its full potential was never going to show up, and a Blue Devils season that never went the way anyone expected took one final unpredictable twist.