North Carolina wins battle of Tobacco Road, retiring Krzyzewski
By Alanis Thames
Hubert Davis put a photo of the Caesars Superdome, the site of this year’s men’s Final Four, in the North Carolina locker room on the first day of practice this season.
It was a strong statement for a first-year head coach, especially one taking over a storied program from Roy Williams, one of college basketball’s most successful coaches. But somehow, Davis seemed to envision an endgame, one that included North Carolina playing for a national title, even if it meant going through its bitter rival Duke.
“It just shows how much confidence and belief he had in us at the beginning of the year,” North Carolina guard R.J. Davis said. “He told us we’re going to be in this position, so we might as well just tell our parents to book their tickets now to New Orleans.”
North Carolina versus Duke has long been one of college basketball’s premier rivalries, the teams’ histories so rich and their fans so fervently invested that even their regular-season meetings carry championship atmospheres.
It’s a rivalry so contentious that North Carolina joyously played spoiler in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game as the pilot of this storied Duke program, a loss Krzyzewski deemed “unacceptable” in an attempt to motivate his team for a postseason run.
And, as if it had been scripted, North Carolina put a period on Krzyzewski’s college coaching career, hanging on after a dizzying multitude of lead changes to defeat Duke on Saturday night 81-77 and denying Krzyzewski the chance to hoist championship hardware one last time on his way out of the sport.
The game’s 18 lead changes built up the frenzy all the way to the final minute, when Duke center Mark Williams missed a pair of free throws that would have given the Blue Devils the lead, and North Carolina’s Caleb Love followed by hitting a 3-pointer.
Few people will remember Love missing his first five shots of the game or failing to score a point in the game’s first 15 minutes. Instead, the image that will endure will be that 3-point jumper with 25 seconds left, the shot that ripped the Blue Devils’ chances away and sealed North Carolina’s spot in the NCAA championship game. The Tar Heels will face Kansas, which easily beat Villanova earlier Saturday, tonight (9:20 p.m. ET, TBS).
“Very few guys in that situation are looking for that type of shot. Caleb is one of them,” Davis said. “He has the confidence to be able to knock it down.”
The basket put an end to Krzyzewski’s historic run, which began in 1980, included the most wins of any coach in men’s college basketball and has seen him credited for molding decades of NBA talent, from Grant Hill to Kyrie Irving and numerous others. In addition to Duke, Krzyzewski also helmed the U.S. men’s basketball team from 2005 to 2016, and won three Olympic gold medals.
After the game, Krzyzewski mentioned that his players were emotional after the loss. He, noticeably, was not.
“I think when you have three daughters, 10 grandchildren and you’ve been through quite a bit,” he said, “you’re used to taking care of the emotions of the people you love and that you’re responsible for. And that’s where I’m at. And I’m sure at some time I’ll deal with this in my own way.”
The magnitude of the game could be felt well before the teams tipped off. Player introductions were barely audible over the roar of the crowd. The Superdome, which holds nearly 75,000 people, was peppered with blue attire, both sky and navy.
The Blue Devils, led by a talented unit that includes three freshmen who are projected to enter the NBA draft at the end of the season — Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and AJ Griffin — looked to be in control at times, though as expected in a game like this, neither team pulled away.
Banchero, a 6-foot-10 forward who can score in numerous ways, did just that against North Carolina, raising up for 3-pointers and throwing down powerful dunks as Tar Heels players watched him glide past them to the basket.
But the Tar Heels were bent on seizing this moment from Duke and Krzyzewski once more, in hopes of a seventh national title in their 12th championship game appearance.
So they matched the energy of the motivated Blue Devils and their impassioned fans. They took advantage of Duke’s big men spending time on the bench with foul trouble. Love, who scored 14 points in the Elite Eight against St. Peter’s and 30 against UCLA, hit seven straight shots to start the second half, flipping the Tar Heels’ halftime deficit to a 3-point lead early in the period.
Armando Bacot, one of the centerpieces of North Carolina’s run to the finals, took advantage of Duke’s smaller lineups when its bigs weren’t on the floor, using his 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame to score at the rim and haul in 21 rebounds.
Duke had known all season that this would be Krzyzewski’s last, and the players did all they could to postpone his retirement, beating Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas to get into Saturday’s semifinal. And Krzyzewski displayed a range of emotions in his final coaching appearance.
Sometimes he stood, staring almost stoically as his players swatted at loose balls. Then he’d retake his seat on a tiny wooden stool near the Duke bench, swiveling back and forth as the teams ran up and down the court.
But after the game, Krzyzewski never deviated from the personable countenance that he has so often displayed. He deflected attention to his players when asked to summarize his career. He spoke with a calmness that conveyed a peace with how it all ended.
“I’ll be fine,” Krzyzewski 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.”
He added: “And I’m sure that that’s the thing that I’ll look back and I’ll miss: I won’t be in the arena anymore.”