On the first day of practise this season, Hubert Davis placed a photo of the Caesars Superdome, the venue of this year’s men’s Final Four, in the North Carolina locker room.
It was a bold statement for a first-year head coach, even more so for one inheriting a storied programme from Roy Williams, one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. However, Davis appeared to envision an endgame in which North Carolina competed for the national championship, even if it meant facing off against hated rival Duke.
“It demonstrates his faith and belief in us from the start of the season,” North Carolina guard R.J. Davis said. “He informed us that if we’re going to be in this situation, we might as well tell our parents to book their flights to New Orleans immediately.”
North Carolina versus Duke has long been one of college basketball’s best rivalries, with such rich histories and ardent fan bases that even its regular-season matches have championship atmospheres.
It’s a rivalry so acrimonious that North Carolina revelled in being the spoiler in Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game as the helmsman of this historic Duke school, a loss Krzyzewski called “unacceptable” in an attempt to push his team for a postseason run.
And, as if by script, North Carolina put an end to Krzyzewski’s college coaching career on Saturday night, defeating Duke 81-77 and denying Krzyzewski the opportunity to hoist championship hardware one final time on his way out of the sport.
The game’s 18 lead changes fueled the frenzy until the final minute, when Duke centre Mark Williams missed a pair of free throws that would have given the Blue Devils the lead, and North Carolina’s Caleb Love responded with a 3-pointer.
Few people will recall Love missing his first five shots of the game or going 15 minutes without scoring a point. Rather than that, the picture that will endure is that 3-point jumper with 25 seconds remaining, the shot that snuffed out Duke’s prospects and assured North Carolina a berth in the N.C.A.A. title game. On Monday night, the Tar Heels will face Kansas, which handily defeated Villanova earlier in the day.
“Only a small percentage of men in that situation are seeking for that type of shot. Davis stated, “Caleb is one of them.” “He have the confidence necessary to bring it down.”
The basket brought an end to Krzyzewski’s remarkable career, which began in 1980 and includes the most wins of any men’s college basketball coach. He is credited with developing decades of NBA talent, from Grant Hill to Kyrie Irving and several more. Along with Duke, Krzyzewski was the head coach of the United States men’s basketball team from 2005 to 2016, winning three Olympic gold medals.
By the game, Krzyzewski stated that his players were emotional following the defeat. Notably, he was not.
“I believe that when you have three daughters, ten grandchildren, and have been through a lot,” he explained, “you become accustomed to managing the emotions of the people you love and are responsible for.” That is where I am at the moment. And I’m certain that I’ll deal with this in my own way at some point.”
The importance of the contest was palpable long before the teams took the court. The introductions of the players were hardly audible over the crowd’s noise. The Superdome, which seats roughly 75,000 people, was strewn in sky and navy blue apparel.
The Blue Devils, anchored by a quality unit that includes three freshmen slated to enter the NBA draught at the conclusion of the season — Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels, and AJ Griffin — appeared to be in charge at times, however neither team pulled away, as is expected in a game of this calibre.
Banchero, a 6-foot-10 forward with a variety of scoring options, did just that against North Carolina, rising up for 3-pointers and slamming down huge dunks as Tar Heels players watched him glide by them to the goal.
However, the Tar Heels were hell-bent on taking this moment from Duke and Krzyzewski once more, in the aim of winning their seventh national championship in their 12th appearance in the final game.
As a result, they matched the zeal of the Blue Devils’ driven players and their fervent fans. They capitalised on Duke’s big men being benched due to foul trouble. Love, who scored 14 points against St. Peter’s and 30 against U.C.L.A. in the round of eight, sank seven consecutive shots to open the second half, transforming the Tar Heels’ halftime deficit into a three-point advantage early in the quarter.
Armando Bacot, one of the pillars of North Carolina’s journey to the finals, took advantage of Duke’s smaller lines when its big men were not on the floor, scoring at the rim and grabbing 21 rebounds with his 6-foot-10, 240-pound body.
Duke was aware throughout the season that this would be Krzyzewski’s final season, and the players did all possible to delay his retirement, defeating Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech, and Arkansas en route to Saturday’s quarterfinal. And in his farewell coaching appearance, Krzyzewski demonstrated a spectrum of emotions.
Occasionally, he stood, almost stoically looking while his players swiped at loose balls. He’d then reclaim his spot on a minuscule wooden stool near the Duke bench, swivelling back and forth as the teams raced up and down the floor.
However, Krzyzewski maintained his friendly demeanour following the loss. When asked to summarise his career, he shifted the focus on his players. He spoke with a coolness that suggested a sense of contentment with the outcome.
“I’m going to be fine,” Krzyzewski stated. “I consider myself fortunate to be in this arena. And once you’re in the ring, you’re either going to feel fantastic or in misery. However, you will always feel fantastic about being in the arena.”
“And I’m sure that’s something I’ll reflect on and miss: I won’t be in the arena anymore,” he continued.