GREENVILLE, S.C. – With 18 seconds left, Frank Martin was still expecting, he said, “a nine-point play.” Then he looked down and saw Mike Krzyzewski, maybe the best coach ever, walking toward him. Then Martin knew. Then it got wild.
Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks gathered by the press table in front of their main cheering section – though there were a lot of sections cheering for them, this being the Palmetto State and there being lots of North Carolina backers (and therefore Duke haters) in the arena – to chant, “USC! USC!”
Martin waved his fist at the crowd from the court and then, his TV interview duties done, waded into the crowd. He hugged Jadeveon Clowney, a big name in another sport, though it must be said: Jadeveon Clowney has yet to win a game this big. “An unbelievable moment for me personally,” Martin called it, speaking of all the moments that led to that stunning final score:
South Carolina 88, Duke 81.
Villanova losing to Wisconsin was a surprise. Duke losing to a team that lost four of its final six games of the regular season and its SEC tournament opener … that’s an out-and-out shock. An OK team from the nothing-special SEC unhorsed the blueblood that had, just eight days earlier, stormed past Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame to win the ACC championship. That seemed like a big deal at the time. It seems rather less of one today.
The ACC sent nine teams to the NCAA tournament. Eight are gone. North Carolina trailed Arkansas – another SEC team – on this very floor 2 ½ hours earlier but rallied to win. A year ago, the ACC sent six teams to the Sweet 16. (Seven days ago, this correspondent picked an all-ACC Final Four.) But the SEC, a conference notable mostly for housing Kentucky, is sending three to the next round. And South Carolina, which lost by 16 points to Memphis on Dec. 30, is one of them.
“The whole time, we felt like we could win,” said Sindarius Thornwell, who scored 29 points in the Gamecocks’ Round 1 dismissal of Marquette and 24 more against mighty Duke. “We were just happy to be in the tournament. It didn’t matter who we played.”
Until Friday night, South Carolina hadn’t won an NCAA game in 44 years. It just notched the biggest win this program has seen since its ACC days, which ended in 1971. And this was no victory achieved in some far-flung sub-regional. This happened in South Carolina, with the famous footballer Clowney and the distinguished basketballer Alex English on hand to witness.
An upset of this magnitude – we stipulate that there aren’t many – has a different feel to it. The favorite begins to doubt in a way it mightn’t have doubted all season. The underdog begins to believe that it belongs on the same court. The crowd gets into it and lifts the underdog higher and higher, and suddenly you look up and it’s inside the final five minutes and the favorite is 10 points in arrears.
You’ve been leaning forward in your seat all night, and now you’re leaning so hard that your chin would be on the playing floor if the press table. You’re leaning forward because you’re thinking, “This could be one I’ll remember always.”
And so it was. South Carolina had mustered seven first-half baskets, making 20 percent of its shots, but trailed only 30-23 at the break. Duke had made 47.1 percent of its shots, a disparity that should have yielded a 15-point lead. But the Gamecocks had held the Blue Devils, possessed of the nation’s best collection of offensive talent, to eight buckets. South Carolina had gotten a grip on the Dukies.
“Our guys were nervous,” Martin said. “This was a new platform for them. I was nervous for our guys. Once the half started to settle down, I was happy with the way we were defending. You can’t have these kids who’ve been through what they’ve been through the past four years and not feel positive about them.”
Then the darnedest thing happened. The team that managed 23 points in Half No. 1 went about the business of scoring 65 in Half No. 2. (On the season, South Carolina had 10 games when it didn’t break 65.) Chris Silva, a sophomore center from Gabon, scored 13 points after the break, nearly four above his per-game average. Rakym Felder, a freshman point guard from Brooklyn, scored 14 second-half points, nearly three times his per-game average.
And Duke? It wasn’t itself, mostly because South Carolina wouldn’t let it be. “It’s the toughest defense we’ve played against all year,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought we were playing our butts off. We got worn down. It’s the most physical game we’ve been in all year.”
Martin: “We attacked. We didn’t pull the quick trigger. We told them, ‘They’re in a little foul trouble. Attack the rim.’ Chris Silva played like a grown man.”
Three Duke starters – Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum and Matt Jones – fouled out. Krzyzewski burned his next-to-last timeout with 8:38 to go. “Just trying to do anything we can,” he said. “The game was very complex in the second half with the fouls. Just juggling a little bit.” Not much worked. The Devils were outscored by five baskets and outrebounded by five; they made 18 turnovers to the Gamecocks’ 11. They were the more talented team but, on the only night that mattered, not the better one.
Down the stretch, part of you kept thinking as Martin was thinking: That Krzyzewski would conjure up something. But South Carolina kept beating the press and making free throws and sustaining its lead. A team that hadn’t made the SEC semis was starting down Duke in the NCAA Round of 32, and all the while Thornwell was telling himself, “One play at a time. Just finish the game.”
When finally it ended, Krzyzewski was gracious toward the setting, declining the opportunity to gripe about having to play a No. 7 seed in its state. “I’d like to thank the organizing committee, the people of Greenville,” he said. “They were proud to have the NCAA tournament here.”
For his part, Martin thanked the great Krzyzewski for having inspired “a young high school coach who was the son of a Cuban immigrant for wanting to do this as a career.” An impassioned game yielded a sweet ending.
And in the South Carolina locker room, Perry Clark – once Bobby Cremins’ assistant at Georgia Tech, later head coach at Tulane and Miami, now a Martin aide – reminded an old Atlanta acquaintance of something he’d said Friday night before the Gamecocks beat Marquette. If they got to Duke, Clark averred, “we’ve got a little something for them.” Sure enough …
What, Clark was asked, did he know? “Frank Martin,” he said. “Frank Martin is a great coach.”
This wasn’t Martin’s first rodeo. He’d taken Kansas State to the Elite Eight. But he’d never beaten Duke to do it. He’d never hugged Jadeveon Clowney afterward. He’d never had this shining moment. Now he does.