NEW ORLEANS – For years we were told by the game’s cognoscenti there was nothing like it, this Duke-Carolina rivalry. It was pounded into our heads not only by a certain revered, gravelly-voiced cable TV color analyst but all of college basketball’s upper crust.
You have no idea, we were told. Seven miles apart, we were told. The greatest rivalry in college sports, we were told. Cameron Crazies. Dean Dome. Stately traditions
They forgot Oklahoma-Texas and Auburn-Alabama in football, for starters. Dismissed them, looked down their noses as if those blood lettings were second-class. Those monumental games are contested once a year living in the hearts of the losers and winners for the next 365. Heck, sometimes Duke-Carolina was played three times in three months.
But let it be known that Duke-Carolina graduated Saturday night. It is something bigger now. It transcended the arguments. It might have transcended sports. Given the stakes, the circumstances and the 40-plus coaching career of a 75-year old giant that painfully, gloriously, improbably ended, it is bigger than what the experts tell us.
You had to experience this. It was an unforgettable one-off. This Duke-Carolina game was never played before in the NCAA Tournament. It will now never be forgotten. Game No. 258 in the rivalry now belongs to the ages. Saturday night it gripped a country, ended a career and earned a designation from a 26-year old Phoenix Suns forward sitting in the first row behind history Saturday night at the Superdome..
“This is the biggest game in college basketball history right now,” said Cameron Johnson, who played for North Carolina from 2017-2019. “To be able to witness it, watch it… nothing like it.”
In a sport obsessed with posters, this one should be framed and hung for all to see. North Carolina’s spot in the national title game Monday night against Kansas almost seems secondary after an 81-77 upset of second-seeded Duke. How can any Tar Heel think about cutting down the nets in two days when they just cut down Duke?
A team that was a First Four candidate a few weeks ago is the best story of this Final Four. The Heels knocked off the Blue Devils four weeks ago to basically get in the tournament. If that 94-81 decision at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5 shocked Duke, then this one shocked the world. Carolina backed up that defeat in Mike Krzyzewski’s last home game by making sure Saturday was the great coach’s last game.
“I’m not thinking about my career right now,” Coach K said.
And then he teared up, obviously thinking — and talking — about his career as the great ones always do. They can’t help themselves when they get to this stage.
“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 will always feel great about being in the arena .”
Coach K referenced three daughters and 10 grandchildren and the blessings of life. Then he admitted, “I’m sure at some time I’ll deal with this in my own way.”
In Game No. 1,570 of his career, Krzyzewski could not complete the run, the story, the dream or the joy of six (national championships). The entire game was so frantic it has to go into the memory banks of all-time greats. Krzyzewski was one of the few in the interview room to have even seen the epic Houston-UCLA game in 1968 that ushered in the stadium era for college basketball. Houston and Louisville put on a dunk clinic in the 1983 semifinals. The 1991 Duke-UNLV semifinal comes to mind (won by Duke 79-77).
Take your pick. Add more. It doesn’t matter. We shall never pass this way again. If there is ever another Carolina-Duke tournament game it will be a repeat. It can’t possibly be as good.
It was so good the entire Superdome crowd of more than 70,000 was forced to pick a side. This was no game for the objective. For a while a 30 for 30 wasn’t what this game was destined for, it was the number of shots made consecutively by both teams.
“I think it reached a level that you would expect,” Krzyzewski said.
That’s the understatement of the tournament. No, the entire season. Carolina went on a 13-0 run early in the second half. Duke more than recovered going on a couple of spurts themselves. Duke was done in by guard Caleb Love who dropped a three-point dagger with 25 seconds left. Eight of his 28 points from him came in the last three minutes.
Duke always seems to win these sorts of games, doesn’t it? Forward Paolo Bancherno (20 points, 10 rebounds was on his way to becoming the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Mark Williams had been a shot-blocking machine (16 in the tournament). But Banchero didn’t score in the final seven minutes Williams endured foul trouble and missed two free throws with 47 seconds left.
The Blue Devils were done in by Love and fellow guard RJ Davis. Together they combined for 46 of Carolina’s points. Armando Bacot (11 points, 21 rebounds) turned an ankle with 5:18 left, left the game only to return Lazarus-style.
“I feel amazing. I feel great. Better than ever,” he deadpanned after the game, half high on adrenaline and half not wanting to give an inch to Kansas scouts for Monday’s championship game.
There were 18 lead changes, 12 ties and tension down to the final seconds.
“But it doesn’t help us on Monday,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “It just doesn’t … I think dwelling on the two wins against Duke doesn’t help us against Kansas. So we put that in a box to think about over the summer.”
It won’t last until then. Two wins vs. Duke in less than a month including the one that sent Coach K packing? What happened in the last month will sustain every Carolina fan, forever. Duke can only live it down if… well, can it? Ever?
The enduring image of the final minutes of this classic will be Krzyzewski – the basketball lion in winter — sitting on a stool above the raised floor as the madness flowed around him. Meanwhile, the 51-year old coach who hijacked a retirement party four weeks ago, sending Krzyzewski into retirement was gesturing wildly.
That was just one tableau from this classic.
“It’s hurtful, it’s painful. To lose to UNC is really painful,” said Tommy Oloyede, Mark Williams’ brother-in-law, himself in the first row at courtside. “I think it will go down as one of the best games each has ever played. I didn’t want to think about [the end]. It’s going to be very quiet. It’s Coach K’s last game. It’s going to be really emotional.”
Johnson practiced with the Suns at 1 pm PT, hopped on a jet and got here in time to watch the Heels and his brother Puff, a North Carolina sophomore forward.
“Coach K is a legend,” Cam Johnson said. “The best to ever do it by far. A ton of respect to him … but that’s the last you’ll see of him.”
Saturday’s classic goes with him whether tucked away in Davis’ box or in the memories of those who witnessed it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism