WASHINGTON — The comet has crashed. And somehow, college basketball will move on without Duke.
In one of the most shocking losses in school history, the Blue Devils fell to Michigan State 68-67 at the end of a brutal game and the end of a beautiful season.
One of the most exciting young teams we’ve ever seen was pushed aside by an older and more physical team that took Duke out of its comfort zone and dared it to relax.
The end came in complete chaos as the Blue Devils struggled for air in the dying seconds of the season.
Now this team will join so many others in the ash heap of history, another one-and-done experiment that fell short, another young and exciting team incapable of taking the final step.
Time will tell how this team will be judged, but it will certainly be remembered as one of the most entertaining teams we’ve ever seen.
“I feel bad for them,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They were deserving of special things. And they have had a special year.”
But all season long, this was supposed to end differently. It was surely not meant to end in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and to Michigan State, of all schools.
“Our guys played their hearts out all year,” Krzyzewski said. “With the tension and the schedule and everything else, they’ve handled things so beautifully.”
But not today.
Duke’s legacy has already been cemented in college basketball history. And so has Krzyzewski’s. But on Duke’s final play of the game, needing two points to tie and the best player in America on the floor, it was neither Duke’s nor Krzyzewski’s finest hour.
Williamson never touched the ball.
Let that sink in. With the game and a season on the line, Krzyzewski sent Williamson to press row, so far away from the play that Michigan State didn’t bother to fall for the decoy.
RJ Barrett drove to his left because he can’t drive to his right, and everybody in green was waiting for it. Barrett’s shot was blocked, and he was fouled. But then he missed the first of two free throws, all but ending Duke’s magical run a week short of the Final Four.
The short tournament run was odd and uncomfortable for Duke, a team that looked to be the best team in the country most of the season and was considered the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament after sweeping through the ACC Tournament.
But reality set in against Central Florida when a shot that rolled off the rim saved Duke from an ignominious exit.
But it seemed to set a tone. This team wasn’t the same team we saw early in the season or late in the season after Williamson came back from a knee injury.
Duke was never in its comfort zone here in Washington. Virginia Tech had a chance to end the run on Friday but missed two shots in the final seconds, allowing the Blue Devils to escape.
Michigan State was a different opponent from the previous schools Duke scraped past. And when push came to shove and shove came to push, the young Blue Devils were off balance.
There was no magic this time. No rim to save them.
Duke was exposed over and over in this tournament, and when Williamson left the game with his second foul in the first half, it was clear to everyone that what was left was the remnants of an AAU team.
Michigan State opened the game with a flourish, putting the Duke freshmen on their heels and letting the Spartans dictate the early flow. Izzo’s motion offense forced Duke to switch assignments until the Spartans got the matchups they wanted.
That led to easy baskets and rebounds, forcing Krzyzewski to take out starter Alex O’Connell and replace him with hobbling Cam Reddish.
Reddish had pulled himself from the lineup minutes before the start of the Virginia Tech game, and it wasn’t a popular decision.
Krzyzewski didn’t ask when he put Reddish into the game today.
And Reddish didn’t dare hesitate. He came in and changed the game, made two key defensive stops, immediately became the most active rebounder on the floor and hit a key three-pointer to jump-start Duke’s floundering offense.
Duke went on a long run in the first half after Krzyzewski called a timeout and excoriated his team.
“What the (expletive) are we doing?” he screamed.
The eventual response was a 20-5 run that gave Duke a 30-21 lead. But then came the second foul on Williamson. And then came an odd lineup by Krzyzewski trying to buy time.
It didn’t work. Jack White was lost in the bright lights, and without Williamson on the court, Duke was suddenly vulnerable. Michigan State went on a 13-0 run to end the half with a 34-30 lead.
The second half was a scrum to the end, as all of Duke’s games became at the end of its run. But this time, it was against a team that was comfortable in chaos.
Duke was anything but this season.
Duke was a team that needed everything going for it, creating momentum that became a light show streaking across the country.
The show is over now.
The comet has crashed.