Ride for Duke's seniors comes to an end in Indy
The Duke careers of Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee ended at the same site of their greatest team accomplishment.
They couldn't duplicate it.
The freshmen on the Blue Devils' most recent national championship team in 2010 saw their final season end two steps shy of that goal.
Instead, their time at Duke concluded in the same domed football stadium in Indianapolis where three years earlier they cut down the nets while celebrating the program's fourth national title.
They were knocked out of the NCAA tournament by a tenacious and motivated top-seeded Louisville team 85-63 in the Midwest Regional final — Duke's first loss in the round of eight since 1998.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski calls Plumlee, Kelly and Seth Curry "the epitome of Duke basketball seniors."
They led the Blue Devils to 124 wins over four years — Curry, who transferred from Liberty after his freshman season, played only three of them — and spent their entire Duke careers in the top 10 of the national rankings.
Their final Duke team went 30-6, twice reached No. 1 in the polls and looked capable of sending Krzyzewski to his NCAA-record-tying 12th Final Four and possibly delivering a fifth national championship.
But the way this season ended — with Duke's third-worst tournament loss under Krzyzewski — left everyone wanting more.
"At the end of a year, you do this, there can be a little bit of you that wants it to be over and you fight it," Krzyzewski said. "And in some years, every once in a while, not too often, you just want the damn thing to be over. And there's not one part of me that wants this season to be over."
For the second time in three years, a foot injury to a key starter wound up becoming the dominating storyline of the season.
Just as the 2010-11 team was enveloped in the will-he-or-won't-he-play drama of Kyrie Irving's toe injury, these Blue Devils spent much of the middle of the season wondering when Kelly would be back after he hurt his right foot in early January.
After the team went 9-4 during nearly two months without Kelly, he returned and scored 36 points against Miami in his first game back. Almost immediately, the Blue Devils were re-installed as the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference — if not the country.
But some of those same old problems — namely, an inability to stay in front of quick guards on defense, and an overdependence on the 3-point shot — crept back up. They led to the program's first one-and-done in the ACC tournament since 2007 and contributed to the loss to Louisville.
Curry was scoreless in the first half and finished 3 of 9 for a Duke team that shot just 36.5 percent and was just 4 of 16 from 3-point range. Cardinals guard Russ Smith and Peyton Siva combined for 39 points against the Blue Devils.
"We needed to play a great game to win, and we couldn't do that," Krzyzewski said.
Those three seniors combined to average nearly 48 points and scored a total of 3,727 points during their Duke careers. And the Blue Devils also will lose one of their longtime assistants when Chris Collins takes over as the head coach at Northwestern.
But despite all those losses, the Blue Devils should enter next season as a favorite to help Krzyzewski match John Wooden with his 12th Final Four as a coach.
There aren't any serious candidates to leave school early for the NBA after the Blue Devils had one-and-done guards in each of the past two seasons.
Duke brings in talented freshman Jabari Parker, one of the nation's highest-rated recruits. Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood sat out this season and will be asked to help at forward. And sharpshooting guard Andre Dawkins, who redshirted this season while dealing with the aftermath of his sister's death, can come back.
But, at least for now, next year can wait. The sting of this season's end remains too fresh for Krzyzewski.
"It's been a joy every day to be with (those seniors), and for all except one team ... it's a tough ending, and so it's a tough ending whenever it comes," Krzyzewski said. "And (Sunday is) the day it came."
Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at (at)JoedyAP.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.