Once before the tournament began, and now at South Africa's exit, AB de Villiers has confronted the choker's tag, and worn it self-critically. "We have choked in the past," was his unprovoked confession in the days leading up to the tournament, and at their farewell, he again uttered the c-word previous South Africa captains would have avoided even if giving a lecture on the Heimlich maneuvre's effect on fuel injection.

It was almost pre-emptive flagellation. Perhaps de Villiers believed the press would beat the team with that stick anyway, and chose to reappropriate the label - or at least soften the blows by admitting it himself. Maybe he believed that taking total ownership of the team's shortcomings is a crucial step in the side eventually overcoming them. Whatever the reason, de Villiers seemed almost eager to evoke South Africa's perceived psychological deficiency when asked a tangential question.

"In the big moments, in the pressure moments, when it really mattered, we were found wanting," de Villiers replied to a question that simply sought enlightenment on the fickleness of Twenty20. "In that Pakistan game, we should have closed that down. We know that. It's simple to say, but we choked that game. That's a simple fact. We've got to go back and become a better team and there are no excuses."

The truth however, is that South Africa didn't go far enough into the tournament to actually choke - at least not to the extent to which they capitulated against New Zealand in the 2011 World Cup quarter final. They are not the first team to find themselves on the receiving end of a thrilling Pakistan comeback, and they are unlikely to be the last. Against Australia, they were simply brutalised by a player in incredible form, and when there was no pressure on them at all in their last match of the tournament, they fell short there as well.

De Villiers denied South Africa had struggled to adjust to the Premadasa pitch, and instead simply said the side had under-performed. The seamers had been humming on a fast, juicy Hambantota surface during the group stage, but could not transfer that form to Colombo for the Super Eights.

"I thought we played well in Hambantota, but I don't think it was the conditions here really, we just didn't play good cricket," de Villiers said. "It started off against Pakistan when we got into a winning position and we found a way to lose that game. We still didn't give up hope and worked really hard. We came back against Australia and we were beaten by a better unit on that day. We tried really hard again today, but it just didn't really click in this tournament. It's hard to put my finger on something - we just played poor cricket throughout."

South Africa's fielding was perhaps the most surprising disappointment in the tournament, for a side that has built a reputation as one of the best fielding outfits in the world. South Africa spilt catches in almost every match, and given two of their defeats in the Super Eights were lost by slim margins, a tidier show in the field might have seen them through to the semi-finals. Both Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina were reprieved during the one-run loss to India.

"It wasn't ideal tonight. Unfortunately we let a couple of catches go down and we have done that in the whole tournament actually. It happens a little in this format when the ball flies all over the place, you do see a couple of catches go down. But that's no excuse, we're a better fielding unit than that."

South Africa will host the Champions League Twenty20 in October, but the team's first international commitment is a tour of Australia in November. De Villiers said the break from their international schedule would be an ideal time to process the disappointments of another unsuccessful campaign in a major tournament.

"We felt very well supported in this tournament and that's the thing that hurts most. The South African media and people back home expect a lot more from us, and unfortunately this time we couldn't deliver. It's not time to give up hope. The guys have performed in the past and that's showed me that I can't lose my faith."

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka