Unless you’re lucky enough to win a national championship, the end of the college basketball season comes abruptly for 67 teams no matter how far you go.
Either you die a painful death like UCF and Virginia Tech did, or you see the seconds dwindle away and know that soon it’s about to be over.
That was the case for Duke Sunday evening. RJ Barrett hit a three to put Duke up 64-63 then Zion Williamson hit a layup to put Duke up by three.
But then the Spartans hit a layup to cut it to one and Kenny Goins hit a clutch three to put MSU up by two with :39 seconds left.
Barrett tried a three that missed but Duke got the rebound and called timeout. Then Xavier Tillman put RJ Barrett on the line with :06 left and he missed the first. He tried to miss the second and it went in anyway.
Free throws were always a concern for this team and in the end, it cost them at least a chance to go into overtime. Michigan State got the ball into Cassius Winston, who was brilliant for the entire game, and he darted up the sideline and dribbled the clock out.
Unlike UCF or Virginia Tech, Duke’s demise came into focus and shocking as it may have been, that’s probably a better way to lose than as a shot rims out as time expires.
Not that it was easy.
Tre Jones was inconsolable after the buzzer sounded. Zion Williamson was no longer ebullient but stone-faced. There were many tears shed in the locker room, as we so often see this time of year.
Duke related on freshmen of course and while they were extraordinarily mature, they were still freshmen and in the end, Michigan State’s experience and hard knocks paid off. Duke could be way ahead of the curve in many ways but you can’t simulate experience.
After the game, Williamson showed his unusual maturity, understanding that “[o]nly one team can be on top, and the odds are slim. The only opinions we’re worried about are in this locker room, and we battled. It’s not the ending we wanted, but we played our hardest.”
He continues to impress, even in defeat.
As for Duke fans, we’re understandably saddened by the end of this most unusual season but we should remember this too: we’ve had an incredible ride.
We got to see a wonderful player emerge in Cam Reddish. We got to see an absolute pit bull of a guard in Tre Jones. We got to see Williamson, a guy who may be the future of the game. We got to see Barrett, a player who is vastly underrated. And we got to see the beautiful chemistry they developed with their older teammates.
This was a special team. It would have been great to have seen them win it all, but when we’re old and telling lies to kids about how great things were when we were younger, we’ll get to this and we’ll try to describe what it was like to see this team in person. We’ll describe beauty and brilliance and chemistry and no matter how tempting it might be to exaggerate, it’ll be very hard to do.
When he was in the Washington Post news room, Shirley Povich could talk about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, among others.
If you are of a certain age today, Muhammad Ali will be a key memory. A bit younger and you’ll talk about Secretariat. A bit younger than that and you’ll talk about Bird, Magic and Jordan.
And if you’re a fan today, for the rest of your life you’ll try to explain what it was like to watch Zion Williamson play, the combination of bulk, speed, power, leaping ability and intellect that make him wholly unique.
Barring something very unexpected, he’ll be in the NBA next year but as much as anyone, he has taken the Brotherhood to heart and in turn Duke Nation has embraced him as fully as anyone who has put on the uniform.
We’ll miss all the departing players but he’s utterly unique. We’ll watch his NBA career with great interest and we’ll talk amongst ourselves about the ways he amazed and stunned us before we sent him on to the broader basketball world.
We’ve said it before and we’ll probably say it again: Duke fans are the luckiest fans in the world.
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