Duke's Andre Dawkins reacts during the final seconds of play as the Blue Devils fall 75-70 to Lehigh. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated 11:17 p.m.
GREENSBORO – Duke’s players were the last to see it coming.
All season long, there was a sense that these Blue Devils could do anything in the postseason, from losing their first game to, if the bracket broke right, getting all the way to the Final Four.
The former of those two options came to pass on Friday night.
With C.J. McCollum leading the way with 30 points, the No. 15 seeded Mountain Hawks knocked second-seeded Duke out of the NCAA tournament with a 75-70 win at the Greensboro Coliseum that wasn’t completely as stunning as the seeds may have indicated.
The Blue Devils repeatedly showed their mortality throughout the season, and its offense unraveled in the last week when Ryan Kelly sprained his right foot before the ACC tournament. The junior forward missed his third straight game on Friday.
Even still, the shock of the abrupt ending hit Duke’s players square in the nose.
“I was prepared to win,” said freshman Austin Rivers. “That’s what Duke’s about. This doesn’t happen. We (expletive) lost to a 15 seed.”
As Rivers alluded to, Duke hardly ever loses its first game in the NCAA tournament. Before Friday night, the Blue Devils had won at least one game in every NCAA tournament since 1997 with the exception of the 2007 season.
“For me, my program, you’re on a continuum,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There are four years that we ended up with a win in my 37 years. It’s not football where you have a bowl game and 35 people end up with a win out of a hundred.
“So when the loss comes and how it’s inflicted, you just take responsibility for it. I think overall my team did a great job this year. But we did not do a really good job this last week and a half, and so that’s upsetting.”
Mason Plumlee made all nine of his field goal attempts, scoring 19 points to lead Duke. Rivers also had 19 points.
After only making 36.3 percent of their shots in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils’ offense once again struggled against the Mountain Hawks. Duke missed its first nine 3-pointers and only shot 23.1 percent beyond the arc for the game.
“Our offense, which was a real strength of ours the entire season, the last two weeks has not been very good,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s my responsibility.”
Rivers dismissed Krzyzewski’s suggestion it was his fault.
“I don’t know how you prepare for something like this,” he said. “This is the worst day of my life. I don’t know how you look back like, ‘I would have, could have, should have.’ That (expletive) doesn’t mean anything. We just lost.
“Lehigh’s a great team and I tip my hat off to them, but we should have won. They outfought us. They played harder, they wanted it more, they were into it, their bench was into it, their coaches were into it. The only thing we had was our coaches. That was it.
“No one else showed up.”
Even still, the Blue Devils had a chance in the final minutes until McCollum put some distance between the Mountain Hawks and the Blue Devils.
With Lehigh up 56-54, McCollum hit a key 3-pointer with 2:24 left to put the Mountain Hawks up five before John Adams slammed the ball home to give Lehigh a 61-54 lead with 1:52 remaining.
Krzyzewski called timeout, and Seth Curry got a 3-pointer to fall after the ball hit off the front rim and then bounced off the glass before falling through the hoop with 1:31 left.
With the shot clock winding down on Lehigh’s next possession, Tyler Thornton was called for his fifth foul with 1:06 remaining. McCollum made both free throws, and Rivers tried to get to the basket on the other end. His attempt in the lane missed and Gabe Knutson made both free throws on the other end to give Lehigh a 65-57 edge.
The Blue Devils couldn’t overcome that margin in the final seconds, although there were moments it looked like Duke might stage an incredible comeback. After Andre Dawkins hit a 3-pointer from the wing, Rivers was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 28.6 seconds left. He made two of his three free throws to bring the Blue Devils within three, 67-64.
But a Jordan Hamilton dunk on the other end closed the door on the Blue Devils’ comeback hopes.
"I've been part of some amazing teams, and I had some amazing accomplishments," said Miles Plumlee, who saw his Duke career come to a close. "But people remember how you leave, and this isn't how I wanted to leave."