INDIANAPOLIS– This was a weekend the Atlantic Coast Conference would rather forget.
The conference some argued was the best ever put nine teams in the tournament. By the time the dust settled in the round of 32, there was only one left standing. And North Carolina needed a 12-0 run at the end of the game to rally past Arkansas, 65-57, at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C.
Virginia Tech, Miami, Virginia, Wake Forest, Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisville and even mighty Duke are all gone, reduced to rubble in what has become a wild first week of the tournament.
Duke created the illusion that they were the team to beat in the East region, based on four days of glory in the ACC tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, when they rallied to defeat Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame to the way to the championship. And the feeling second seeded Duke was a lock for the Final Four grew Saturday when Wisconsin upset top seed Villanova in Buffalo.
But Duke looked like just another over hyped team when they played South Carolina, the second place team in the SEC.
The Gamecocks unmasked the Blue Devils, 88-81, for its lack of chemistry, consistency and point guard play, which contributed mightily to an ugly 18 turnovers against South Carolina’s stifling perimeter pressure. The Gamecocks will advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history where they will play third-seeded Baylor Friday in the Garden.
“We’re in it, we may as well win it,” South Carolina’s confident guard Sindarius Thornwell said.
Thornwell led Carolina with 24 points. Forward Chris Silva had 13 of his 17 points in the second half and Duane Notice had 14 of 17. The Gamecocks were relentless in the second half when it scored 65 points. taking advantage of the fact Duke was a skilled team, but not a physical one. They shot 71.4 percent from the floor in the second half, hitting 4-for-5 from three and 21-for-23 from the foul line. They made 18 of their first 24 shots in the second half.
Duke, which has been a regular in the Sweet 16, just couldn’t make stops against dribble penetration once the barrage started.
South Carolina took away Duke’s greatest strengths, shutting the door for good by limiting Duke to 5 of 19 threes in the second half.
Duke has great one on one talent at the perimeter in Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum, who bailed them out so many times in the conference tournament. But South Carolina never allowed them to break out, limiting Duke’s leading scorer Kennard to just one field goal before he fouled out. Allen finished with 20 points, but he was 5-for-13 from the floor and, playing as the primary ball-handler, finished with two assists and three turnovers. Tatum had 15 points and shot 6-for-12 from the field, but he had five turnovers and never looked comfortable breaking down his man one-on-one.
“South Carolina played a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted afterwards. “That was the toughest defense we’ve played all year. Very physical.”
The game was originally set to be played in Greensboro, N.C. but was moved to Greenville by the NCAA because the state would not repeal the transgender bathroom law, creating a hostile environment for the Dukies. The majority of the sellout crowd, which included a heavy mixture of Duke’s arch rival North Carolina and South Carolina fans, openly rooted against the Devils.
The ACC backlash was everywhere. The ACC has the benefit of high seeds. North Carolina was a 1. Duke was a 2. Louisville and Florida State were threes. Virginia and Notre Dame were 5 seeds.
But opposing teams were never imitated.
The dominoes began falling in Dayton when Kansas State defeated Wake Forest, 95-88, in an 11 seed match up in a First Four game at Dayton. Then Wisconsin got eight threes from guard Bronson Koenig and used its size and composure to get by Virginia Tech, 84-74 in a first round game at Buffalo. The carnage hit with full force in the second round on Saturday. West Virginia frazzled normally unflappable Notre Dame, 81-73, in a second round game in Buffalo, forcing the Irish into 10 first half turnovers, limiting touches by point guard Matt Farrell and turning them into tentative shooters. Then, a young Michigan State team, coming off an average Big Ten season, defeated Miami, 78-58, in a first round game at Tulsa. Freshman forward Nick Ward scored 19 points for the Spartans and freshman Miles Bridges had 18. “I think they made every shot they took,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. Xavier routed Florida State, 91-66, in second round game at Orlando, hurting the bigger, more physical Seminoles inside and finishing them off by shooting a season best 11 for 18 from the three. Virginia forgot how to run offense during an embarrassing 65-39 loss to Florida in Orlando, scoring just 17 points and making only 29.6 percent for the game. It was the first time Virginia had scored under 40 since 1940 when it lost to Wisconsin.
Sunday, Louisville allowed Michigan 6-11 center Moe Wagner to play string music in the paint, scoring 26 points and the Wolverines scored 40 points in the paint, rallying from a nine-point deficit to beat the Cards, 73-69, in Indianapolis.
North Carolina was the only ACC team to escape after blowing a 17 point lead. Hulking center Kennedy Meeks capped off a rally by scoring on a tip in in the final 44.5 seconds to lift the Heels to a 68-65 lead over Arkansas and they held on from there.
“I don’t mind saying I feel a little lucky,” North Carolina Roy Williams said. “Every now and then, I knock in a long putt, too.”
The luck ran out for the other eight conference teams.