Fri Mar 25 09:34am EDT
ANAHEIM, Calif. — There was only one noteworthy aspect of Nolan Smith's and Kyle Singler's trek from the interview room to the Duke locker room on Thursday night: Neither said a word.
Engulfed in their own thoughts after top-seeded Duke's shocking 93-77 loss to fifth-seeded Arizona on Thursday night, Singler and Smith walked in silence through a series of narrow corridors littered with cleaning equipment, cardboard boxes and unused folding chairs. No words were needed to convey to each other the disappointment of a loss that marked the end of both seniors' storied collegiate careers.
"The tournament is cruel," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's an abrupt end for everybody when you don't win. Last year it wasn't an abrupt end for us, when we won the whole thing. You have to look at the full body of work, these guys have been part of 125 wins over a period of four years and it's been an honor for me to coach them."
Both Singler and Smith cemented their legacies at Duke by leading the Blue Devils to a title last spring, but they'll probably remember their senior season as somewhat bittersweet. Both entered the NCAA tournament with a banner-or-bust mentality, especially after winning the ACC tournament, earning a No. 1 seed and getting freshman Kyrie Irving back from the toe injury that sidelined him for more than three months.
For Singler, falling short of another Final Four has to be especially frustrating as a result of what he sacrificed to return to Duke for his senior year.
Last year's Final Four Most Outstanding Player said he'd still make the same decision to forgo the NBA draft last spring even though he would have been a near-certain first-round pick and his stock has fallen a bit since then. His 16.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game are similar to last season's production, yet he ceded the role of dominant scorer to Smith and Irving, when healthy.
"I have no regrets," Singler said. "The guys on the team, that's the main reason I came back. I love my teammates, I love coach, I love the staff. Being around them, it's been great."
Whereas Singler concluded his Duke career on a 18-point, 7-for-11 shooting performance, Smith's ended on a more sour note. He made just 3 of 14 shots and finished with just eight points, a far cry from the 20.6 points per game the national player of the year candidate averaged this season.
"They clogged it up tremendously on my drives," Smith said. "They took charges in the first half, which got me two fouls and got me a little out of it. In the second half, I tried to get going, but they did a great job in the paint and making me shoot contested jump shots."
The hardest part for the two Duke seniors was the way the game unraveled in the second half. The Blue Devils led by as many as 11 in the first half and by six at halftime, yet a 19-2 Arizona run reversed the teams' fortunes.
When Singler and Smith checked out for the final time with about two minutes remaining and the score well out of reach, Krzyzewski reminded both not to dwell on the loss but to look at the bigger picture.
"He just said, 'Keep your heads up because you guys are the champions,'" Smith said. "We were champions last year. That's what he was trying to say. He was just saying to act like it."