An epic night in New Orleans: The end of Coach K’s career doubles as the peak moment in the Duke-UNC rivalry

NEW ORLEANS — As if Duke-North Carolina wouldn’t exceed the astronomical levels of hype.

As if we were getting anything other than one of the greatest games in Final Four history.

“It was a game that the winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “And that’s the type of game we expected.”

Some things are destined for iconic status. North Carolina’s 81-77 national semifinal victory against Duke immediately logs in that category. The eighth-seeded Tar Heels not only won their first and only NCAA Tournament against their despised rival, but also booted Krzyzewski off the stage and out of this tournament, ending his peerless 47-year career with a loss so infamous that it goes into an echelon of its own genre.

North Carolina, you just achieved the biggest rivalry victory American sports has ever seen. And there’s still a national title game against Kansas to be played on Monday night. That might feel like a scrimmage in comparison to the weeklong buildup and world-squeezing anticipation of Blue Devils vs. Tar Heels. Saturday night provided enough stakes to burn this feud for another few decades.

Then they went out and played the game and put on an all-time basketball classic.

For Duke and Krzyzewski, the ending comes one game and two days too soon. For as great and composed as Duke looked in its previous four NCAA Tournament games, none of those involved North Carolina. It’s just different when these two share 94×50 feet of hardwood. A magic tends to ensnare all involved, while the rest of us spectators all too willingly get sucked right in. What transpired inside Caesars Superdome on this night felt different. Felt special.

Felt like we’ll never experience something like this again. That’s because we won’t.

We just witnessed the end of one of the greatest coaching careers in all of sports, and to declare it happened in dramatic fashion would be underselling just how powerful it felt to be inside the building on this Saturday night.

The Final Four had a crowd of 70,602 on hand to watch an epic between Duke and UNC.
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It was 15,355 days before this one — March 18, 1980 — when a 33-year-old was introduced as Duke’s next coach. Almost no one knew how to pronounce or spell Krzyzewski then. Forty-two years and 1,202 victories later, arguably the greatest coaching career ever in basketball has been ended by a blood rival in a blueblood battle for the ages.

Before Saturday night, Krzyzewski had left the locker room on the losing end 367 times. The 368th will never be forgotten in Chapel Hill or Durham or throughout college basketball. Maybe forever in this sporting landscape. Fates were fulfilled on this night. It came full circle. The man coached 1,570 college games, but three losses sew up a Hall of Fame career otherwise adorned with a novella’s worth of accomplishments and accolades.

The first loss Krzyzewski took at Duke was on Dec. 5, 1980. The last one at home only four Saturdays before the Final Four, on March 5. The final one materialized after two drama-soaked hours of unreal basketball in front of a capacity crowd of 70,602 blessed souls fortunate enough to be on hand to see it.

All three losses with a common theme and enemy: North Carolina.

Defeat, defeat, defeat.

“Those kids from both teams played their hearts out,” Krzyzewski said. “The crowd was standing most of the game, I think.”

After a three-year absence from having a proper Final Four with full attendance, this was one of the biggest parties in America’s quintessential celebratory city. College basketball returned to a place on Saturday night it had not been for a long time.

And, naturally, it was going to take something herculean for the winning side. K goes out with an L because of Love and Armando Bacot, whose 11 points and 21 rebounds kept North Carolina in the push as the game grew to higher and higher levels of suspense. Big shot after huge shot after are-you-kidding-me shot.

How does a legendary coaching career slam shut? Many reasons, some bigger than others. But the two biggest: free throws and a 20-year-old sophomore from St. Louis named Caleb Love. For Duke, it was missed foul shots, four in the final 3:52 from Mark Williams, Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels.  

On the other side, the death-or-glory gall of Love. In the final 44 seconds, the point guard seized the game in his hands (two rebounds, six points) and delivered a closing performance that will fit alongside another Tar Heel (Michael Jordan) who became legend in this building 40 years ago. Love’s 3-pointer with 24.8 to go from the top of the key put UNC up 78-74. Then the icing of it with Love hitting both his foul shots with 8 seconds left. The game’s final shot came from Keels, whose 3-point attempt went begging with seconds remaining.

Krzyzewski went from sitting, arms crossed, to taking a glance at UNC’s bench. It was all wrapping so fast. The 75-year-old lifted himself off his stool, walked with a hitch to midcourt and shook hands with the coach who beat him: Hubert Davis. The former Carolina great as a player has become a bona fide school legend in his first season as a head coach. He’ll forever hold a 2-1 record vs. Krzyzewski. There was a Shakespearean tinge to this all-time affair in the heart of the Crescent City. 

On the court, UNC staff and players alike immediately exalted in jubilation. They were all over the floor, basking in the beauty of the biggest triumph in this rivalry’s history. Some were so thrilled, they neglected to get in the handshake line. But K waited. Even as some of his players made a quicker exit off the raised floor and made way back to the locker room, Krzyzewski was sure to shake every hand and take the loss. Couldn’t have been easy.

Internally, it’s probably hell. To see Krzyzewski at the podium afterward, there were moments where it seemed he was still trying to process what happened over the previous 2½ hours. This is Carolina’s upper hand on Duke for eternity. The Tar Heels closed K at Cameron with a loss and then somehow managed to one-up the greatest victory in the rivalry’s history with an even bigger and more consequential one on the sport’s biggest stage. Of course it was going to come to a spectacle like this when Duke and Carolina met for the first time in the NCAA Tournament.

They should do it more often, don’t you think?

Caleb Love’s 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining effectively clinched the game for Carolina.
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As Krzyzewski left the stage for a final time, he held hands with his wife, Mickie, only to find a crying Keels waiting for him in the hallway leading to the locker room. A hundred yards away, North Carolina was still celebrating on the court.

“I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying,” Krzyzewski said. “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 makes me understand just how good this group was. And that’s what I’m concerned — I don’t want any of these guys to leave and say, I should have made that one free throw; I should have made that one — we win and we lose together.”

Didn’t help matters that Duke had no timeouts left in the final few minutes. That didn’t stop the haymakers from landing, though. There were spurts that turned into runs. Duke had a 10-2 peel that gave it the lead back after slipping to a 47-41 deficit. No run was more significant than the 13-0 deluge UNC dumped on Duke early in the second half immediately after Duke fleetingly earned its largest lead of the game, 41-34 with 18:51 remaining.

There was Bacot’s injury, in a 65-all game with 5:18 game remaining. He gingerly was helped off the floor. It seemed like he would be out for the duration. But no. With 4:36 remaining, Bacot was back in. When he walked over to check in, the building got another one of those roars that raises the bumps on your skin. You could feel it in the air inside Caesars Superdome. We were cresting toward an epic — if we weren’t already there.

The leads changed again and again — when the game wasn’t finding itself in a tie. The wobbly nature of this scramble resulted in 18 lead changes and 12 ties. Duke led for 17:09, UNC led for 16:22. Duke had 48 points in the paint, while North Carolina offset that with 10-of-26 3-point shooting to Duke’s 5 for 22 from beyond the arc.

Wendell Moore Jr.’s straightaway 3-pointer with 1:18 remaining gave Duke a 74-73 lead, its last of Krzyzewski’s career. Duke’s final timeout came after that. K, as he did in the Sweet 16 victory against Texas Tech, asked his team to touch the floor. Then he asked them again.

“Down, down. Now,” he said.

Players and coaches alike obliged.

With 46.7 seconds remaining, Bacot fouled out. There will be moments from this game that haunt Duke fans, like Williams missing both of his free throws down 75-74 with 46 seconds remaining. Twenty-one seconds later, Love hit the trey that will go down in UNC lore. A heady Jeremy Roach wasted no time and slithered through to convert a layup with 19 seconds remaining. Duke wasn’t done yet.

Free throws would cinch and clinch the game for both sides. Love went 3 for 4, while Keels went 1 for 2 in the deciding possessions. This tilt had everything except for a final-possession shot to decide it. You can’t ask for more. It was a gift of a watch. Coach K didn’t go long on retrospectives on his life or career, but he did provide a thought on what it means to be involved in college competition at the highest level.

I’ve been blessed to be in the arena,” Krzyzewski said. “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.”

Mike Krzyzewski ends his career with a record 1,202 wins, 13 Final Fours and 101 NCAA Tournament victories.
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At 11:11 p.m. local time, Krzyzewski walked back into the locker room after riding a golf cart from postgame press conference. Even before that, as an army of reporters waited to get one last look at him, he joked, “Maybe you can superimpose a sunset.” Upon his final return to the Duke locker room, Krzyzewski sequestered himself there for 39 minutes. Those moments are for those walls and those players and coaches.

When he emerged with his wife and Duke assistant Nolan Smith at 11:40 p.m., NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt was waiting to wish Krzyzewski well. They shared a handshake, a quick conversation, and then Mike and wife Mickie made their way to another golf cart, softly sitting next to each other as his career officially was coming to an end in a tangible way. The moment had finally come. An NCAA staffer drove them around the perimeter of the bowels of the Superdome, the squeaks of the tires on the cement floor echoing off the walls as Krzyzewski made his final exit from the stadium. The cameras were out of sight now. This actual exit out of the Superdome was in the quiet and away from the media throng, save for this reporter riding in a separate golf cart just behind Krzyzewski. 

His goodbye to the arena, as he called it, would come with Mickie’s head briefly on his left shoulder on that golf cart. They pulled out of the stadium and into the cool New Orleans air at 11:43 and walked right onto the team bus, where almost everyone already was waiting. The couple took their seats in the right side of the second row. Krzyzewski let out a couple of big exhales. Two minutes later, he got up and walked a few rows back and stood in the middle of the bus, his words to the team only for those inside to know and hear.

He’ll take 1,202 wins, 13 Final Fours and 101 NCAA Tournament victories with him. All those records his. He leaves behind a program that is so much better than how he found it. For almost everyone, getting into this tournament means having to end with a loss. Only five times — in 1991, ’92, ’01, ’10 and ’15 — did it not for Duke and Krzyzewski. He had taken that bus ride out of a stadium or an arena on the losing end 30 times before this weekend. 

The 31st time is different. It’s forever. It’s to North Carolina. It feels as inevitable as it does unbelievable.

At 11:47, with Krzyzewski still standing in the aisle, the bus closed its doors and pulled out of the stadium. A police escort guided the team back to its hotel, bringing them through a city still alive and drunk with thousands upon thousands of North Carolina fans clamoring up the streets of New Orleans. The closing scenes of agony and joy in what was one of the most memorable nights in college basketball history. 

Krzyzewski’s career is over, American sports’ greatest rivalry has peaked, and Duke-North Carolina can never be the same again.

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An epic night in New Orleans: The end of Coach K’s career doubles as the peak moment in the Duke-UNC rivalry

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