Despite playing its best basketball this season, Michigan State just couldn’t find enough consistency to send Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski packing to the retirement home, instead losing 85-76 during a Round of 32 loss Sunday in South Carolina.

This was the one that got away. It’ll burn Tom Izzo for years to come, no question.

MSU had it tied 65-65 with about 6 minutes to play, then jumped out to a 70-65 advantage. The clock was ticking, and it was looking good for the Spartans. Momentum was seemingly on their side.

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A big-time 3 from Tyson Walker, a timely layup by AJ Hoggard — the No. 7 seed Spartans looked like they were about to do the unthinkable. However, a game-closing 20-6 run by the No. 2 seed Blue Devils turned the tables, keeping their dream alive while simultaneously helping Coach K reach a record 26th Sweet 16.

With that said, the retirement party will have to wait for Coach K, as Duke advances to face the winner of No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 11 Notre Dame. On the other hand, MSU now looks to regroup for next season.

It wasn’t the way the Spartans wanted to exit, but they certainly surprised a lot of people by hanging tough with a heavy favorite. Yes, it was just a second-round meeting, but it had all the energy and emotion of a Final Four classic. Without a doubt, Sunday’s game with Duke will go down as one of the best battles between two of college basketball’s greats.

Prior to Sunday, Coach K was asked about that very angle — K vs. Izzo, Duke vs. MSU. He certainly must realize that the Spartans will serve as a roadblock almost every year, so beating them ultimately leads to a lot of success. But K doesn’t necessarily view it like that.

“You don’t put a banner up by your record against a certain team or a certain coach,” Krzyzewski said, per Kyle Austin of MLive. “So if you get caught up in that, or you record on a Saturday afternoon or whatever, it’s just the wrong — for me, it’s been the wrong thing to do.”

What went wrong?

The Spartans were their own worst enemy during the middle of the first half Sunday in Greenville, forcing at least 5 beyond-poor shots — and some other questionable — and playing a sloppy timid style until eventually waking up to close the first 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, though, the Blue Devils ran the floor and, well, avoided making the same mistakes as their opponents — they had a couple of hiccups but never found themselves trying to dig out of a hole like the Spartans, who relied on 7-10 shooting from 3-point land to stay competitive during the opening 20 minutes (Gabe Brown was 4-for-4 from 3).

But back to the early mistakes, which resurfaced during most of the second half. More bad shots. More wasted possessions. More sleepy defense, especially in set plays. Duke’s 20-6 run was a prime example of MSU’s inability to buckle down during tense situations, a problem that plagued them for the majority of the conference regular season.

The mid-half meltdown was a direct result of a 6-minute scoring drought for the Spartans, who trailed 23-18 with roughly 6 minutes to play. Brown’s 3-pointer tied the game at 33 with about a minute left, but the Spartans just couldn’t stay even with the speed and athleticism of the Blue Devils, who took a 39-35 lead into the locker room.

The (kind of) bright side

A quiet, 2-point first half wasn’t the way Max Christie wanted to open his first meeting with the Blue Devils — but that was the reality, until he came alive in the second half. Driving to the basket, he was swatted … then he had a turnover … and then, he followed with a corner 3-pointer and later delivered by aggressively attacking the rim. Within striking distance, MSU trailed 46-42, only to tighten up and eventually take a 70-65 lead late in the second half.

Christie showed a glimpse of the future of Spartans hoops. Yeah, it doesn’t ease the sting of the loss, but Christie’s performance proved that he could evolve into a high-level scorer, just like he was in high school.

Brown’s 4-for-4 from 3-point land in the first half was the reason why the Spartans were in Sunday’s game in the first place. Without that barrage from the perimeter, the Spartans probably wouldn’t have come out with such energy in the second — they knew they had a fighter’s chance at toppling Duke, which is 14-3 against the Spartans under Coach K.

Brown’s 7-for-11 shooting from long range has to be one of the best 3-point shooting performances in MSU tournament history. Ordinarily, it’d be almost a no-brainer to assume the Spartans would win on the strength of that alone… but it didn’t happen that way.

What the loss means

Moral victories don’t mean squat at this time of year, not for a program such as Michigan State. Not with its track record vs. Duke.

Sunday’s bout with the Blue Devils was the one that got away for Izzo and the Spartans, there is really no other way to accurately describe the scenario. This wasn’t a game in which Duke dominated or outclassed MSU; this was a game that was very much in reach, and it’ll be one that will haunt Izzo for the rest of his career.