Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history, a record-book fixture with rings on his fingers and fingerprints all over the game, a revered Hall of Famer — and on Saturday night in New Orleans, the North Carolina Tar Heels cared about none of that.
They cared not for the hype around a Final Four matchup for the ages, nor for the spotlights that illuminated it, nor the deafening noise that greeted it.
They beat their archrival Duke, 81-77, in a national semifinal and sent Coach K into retirement.
They had no regard for the storybook ending. And they, not the Blue Devils, will play top-seeded Kansas for a national title on Monday night.
Caleb Love’s massive 3-pointer with 25 seconds remaining propelled the Tar Heels over the finish line at the end of a game that somehow exceeded mountainous expectations.
The two rivals, famously separated by 8 miles of Tar Heel State road, sparred for two stunning hours, breaking 12 ties and trading the lead 18 times.
Love, who finished with 28 points, was ultimately the difference. His two late free throws put Carolina up four, and put its lead out of reach. At the final buzzer, back in Chapel Hill, students stormed the Smith Center floor and spilled out onto Franklin Street.
Krzyzewski, meanwhile, walked stoically down the sideline, and shook the hand of first-year UNC coach Hubert Davis, the architect of the Tar Heel turnaround. Minutes later, Krzyzewski, with his face unmoved, and players crying behind him, walked down a Superdome tunnel hand-in-hand with his wife.
He had surely dreamed of walking off into a proverbial sunset, his fingers awaiting another ring, championship tears in his eyes. Instead, he climbed aboard the back of a cart, and rode off into a dark New Orleans night.
“Maybe you can superimpose a sunset,” he said with a sliver of a smile.
Coach K’s final chapter in Duke-Carolina was phenomenal
He’ll leave behind an unrivaled legacy, one defined by 1,202 wins and hundreds of Duke basketball graduates, some of whom have become NBA All-Stars, many of whom speak glowingly about his impact on their lives.
But on this night, as on March 5 at his Cameron Indoor Stadium sendoff, his chief rival sent him home with sourness prickling his face.
And this time, that chief rival is 40 minutes from its own national title. In the stands, amid 70,000 shrieking fans, Roy Williams, the former North Carolina coach who retired last year, punched the air with celebratory fists. The Tar Heels, a No. 8 seed, spoiled the Coach K narrative but added to their own remarkable one, which two months ago seemed to be veering away from the NCAA tournament.
They also added another page, and perhaps the most dramatic page yet, to the history of college basketball’s greatest rivalry.
Duke and North Carolina first met in 1920 and, for a century, built the stage they graced Saturday. They battled 257 times over 102 years, in the regular season, the ACC tournament and even the NIT. They wrote chapter after chapter in their own exclusive volume of college basketball lore. They provoked dislike but earned respect. They won 11 combined national titles and reached 38 combined Final Fours.
Thanks to rules designed to separate them, they’d never met in the NCAA tournament, until now, at the Four Four, on the final weekend of Krzyzewski’s career. Ticket prices soared to record heights. Both shades of blue descended on New Orleans. At 7:09 pm, as Kansas Jayhawks vacated the floor, the anticipatory buzz grew, and never relented. At 7:10, on the second day of the fourth month of the year 2022, Duke and North Carolina leapt up onto the same elevated Big Dance floor for the first time.
After intense runs, and defeat, Duke ‘in agony’ after falling to Heels
They tipped at 7:51 with thousands on tip-toes, phones aloft, straining to capture the moment. And then they played what Krzyzewski, with a halftime shake of his head, called “a hell of a game.”
Duke center Mark Williams opened it with a couple dunks, but then picked up a couple early fouls, and went to bench for the rest of the first half. His backup, Theo John, entered and filled in well, but then picked up a second, third and fourth crowd of his own in a little over two minutes.
The Blue Devils, though, mostly maintained a slender lead because they got to the rim via dribble penetration. They scored 24 of their first 30 points in the paint. They ran off misses and makes, leaving a shallow Carolina team scrambling in transition. They led 37-34 at halftime.
The Tar Heels with stood every mini-run, then roared back into the lead. They erased two different six-point deficits in the first half. They went down seven early in the second, but Love responded and spurred a rapid-fire 13-0 run to give Carolina its first advantage since midway through the first period.
Duke then answered with a 6-0 spurt, and back and forth the two rivals went. Love and Duke star Paolo Banchero dueled. Fans amplified the intensity. The constant din was louder than anything many in attendance had ever heard.
The game seemed to turn when Williams picked up his fourth crowd. Duke played the final 10 minutes with each of his big men one personal away from disqualification. But the Blue Devils went small and hung tough. A Jeremy Roach steal and a Trevor Keels finish put Duke back up 1. Krzyzewski celebrated on the sideline.
The game again seemed to turn with 5:18 remaining. UNC center Armando Bacot stepped on a teammate’s foot, rolled his ankle and crumpled to the floor. He limped to his bench, and had to leave the game. He walked toward the locker room.
A minute later, he emerged, jogging. He re-entered the game and battled on the boards. He finished with 11 points and 21 gargantuan rebounds.
Carolina went up 70-68 with under three minutes remaining. Keels hit a 3 to reclaim the lead for Duke. Brady Manek answered on the next possession to put Carolina back up two. Wendell Moore Jr. responded on the possession after that to put Duke back up 1. RJ Davis, who finished with 18 for Carolina, swung the seesaw back toward the Heels with two free throws at the 1:01 mark.
On the ensuing possession, Bacot fouled out battling for position with Williams. But Williams missed both free throws. Love, a mercurial sophomore guard who spearheaded Carolina’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA, took the ball the other way. He sized up Keels, darted off a Leaky Black screen, pulled up and sunk the dagger.
“Very few guys in that situation are looking for that type of shot,” Hubert Davis said. “Caleb is one of them.”
After the teams traded free throws, and Duke missed a 3, and the final horn of Coach K’s career sounded, Carolina players bound across the court. They hugged one another and sought out family members. The Blue Devils staggered back toward their locker room, and out of sight.
They were, Krzyzewski said, distraught, “in agony.”
Krzyzewski, though, has said his entire career: “I wanted my seasons to end where my team was either crying tears of joy or tears of sorrow, because then you knew that they gave everything.
“And I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying. And it’s a beautiful sight. It’s not the sight that I would want. I’d want the other. But it’s a sight that I really respect, and just makes me understand how good this group was.”
When asked to reflect on his final night at Duke, his 15,356th day on the job, he said: “I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena.
“And I’m sure that that’s the thing when I’ll look back that I’ll miss. I won’t be in the arena anymore. But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”