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Gravley: Duke exits before reaching the ultimate goal

April 1, 2019

I met Tre Jones’ mom, Debbie, before Duke’s game with Michigan State. She had a “Duke mom” button on and a Duke hat that couldn’t completely hide what she had been through this year.

Debbie Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In our conversation, she had the pregame excitement that a parent would have before one of the biggest games her son had ever played in. But at the end of the game, her son was bent double with emotion, tears of a bitter loss rolling down his cheek.

He was locked in that position for what seemed like an eternity. Teammates and assistant coaches tried to console him. But the image I will always remember is Michigan State players Nick Ward and Cassius Winston breaking away from their celebration to walk over to Jones. Winston and Jones embraced as if they were teammates.

That’s the power of sports.

After a cooling off period, the Duke locker room was open and Jones sat in his locker with a towel over his head. We waited until he was ready to talk. He would start a sentence and his eyes would well up again, his lip quivered. The freshman guard was trying to explain his emotions. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” he said before a long pause.

He then put his head in a towel to continue dealing with the disappointment of a season ending loss.

The goal is always the same at Duke: to win a national championship. Not get to the Final Four but to win a national title.

For this team to come up short is not a failure. Mike Krzyzewski chose another word. “If we don’t win the whole thing. To me it’s disappointing. It’s not a disappointment year. Like, there’s a big difference,” he said.

If there is one thing we have learned or should have learned, winning on signing day doesn’t always equate to winning national titles. Just look at this year’s field with Virginia, Auburn, Texas Tech and Michigan State. You can also sample the last 10 Final Four teams and you’ll find more examples of top recruiting classes that don’t always cut down the nets.

What we saw at Duke this year was one of the most heralded freshman classes that provided many magical moments. It just didn’t reach the destination of choice.

A one-year run that has ended.

“Just look around the locker room and see your teammates, your brothers,” Zion Williamson said. “And you just think this group probably never will play together.”

Fellow freshman RJ Barrett added, “For it to be over for us is heartbreaking.”

Barrett and Williamson will now move on to the NBA, competing against each other rather than pulling in the same direction for the same team.

It’s likely that Cam Reddish and possibly Tre Jones could join their one-and-done teammates and enter the NBA Draft.

“It’s been a remarkable year for these young men,” Mike Krzyzewski said at the end of his press conference. ”I’m not sure another group will have it; a year with all this.”

Expectations, pressure, success, moments and memories. It was a year that will be remembered for that, and a postseason run that didn’t reach the finish line.