Coach K’s career ends in an unforgettable showdown between Duke and UNC

Who knew that stomach linings could be eaten, that black hair could turn gray, over the course of two and a half hours? Souls and lives were poured into this rivalry. Two fan bases needed defibrillators just to breathe until the end.

How about that in the final six minutes? Tied at 65. Tied at 67. Carolina up to 70-68. Duke 71-70 on Trevor Keels’ three-pointer. Carolina went up 73-71 on Brady Manek’s response. Duke for the lead in Wendell Moore Jr. the answer. Carolina by a point on RJ Davis’ two free throws.

And then Caleb Love and the three that essentially ended Krzyzewski’s career.

“One game away from a national championship,” Love said. “What else can you say?”

Quite. That was dizzying, regardless of the teams. What were these two? Under these circumstances? Please.

“It was a game where the winner would be happy and the loser would be in agony,” Krzyzewski said. “This is the kind of game we were hoping for.”

Because they know the opponent and the stakes. Take that joy for Carolina, that agony for Duke, and amplify them – because emotions came against each other and because any team could have won. Love’s dagger from a three-pointer came with 24.8 seconds left, just after Duke’s big man Mark Williams missed two free throws. The scope of the event was enormous. Small successes and failures decided that.

And because of that, there are consequences – delusional or devastating, depending on your perspective. The first is that North Carolina will never again have to debate the most satisfying victory over its despised rival. The debate now becomes: is this the most satisfying win out of the show’s 2,322 wins in 112 seasons?

There was Dean Smith’s first championship in 1982, when Michael Jordan was a freshman and hit the winning goal against Georgetown in this very building. There was Smith’s second and final title, also won here, 11 years later. They were the three championships won by the teams of Roy Williams.

They didn’t – they couldn’t – have the depth of feeling that this victory had. It’s not that Monday’s championship game against Kansas is secondary. It’s just that Duke-Carolina has no equal, and the pinnacle of the sport is the Final Four, where they’ve never met. The whole package is such that the strength of Carolina Armando Bacot, who managed 21 rebounds, severely sprained his ankle in the closing minutes. His post-game review: “I feel amazing. I feel great. Better than ever.” A cure-all.

There was a lot going on here. The two fan bases – one in sky blue, the other in royal blue, polar opposites, even if they are just different shades – were sitting diagonally from each other. Better keep them separate.

When Love converted a kick that forced a Duke timeout midway through what became a 13-0 Tar Heels run, he could have run into a corner – near his own bench – and set the worshipers on fire. Instead, he stepped toward the Duke crowd and flexed. When Love then pitched a three-pointer moments later, the Blue Devils crowd roared at him. Rivalry is built on that kind of equal time between supporting your own and insulting the other.

So, at airport gates and in car rental lines – not to mention the saloons that dotted the streets of this party city – history and gambling dominated conversation all week. There is no moment that cannot be revived and re-litigated. Memories are long. These two fan bases don’t agree if the water is wet, so analyzing the best moments of the rivalry isn’t so much a sport as a way of life.

Jerry Stackhouse’s initial 1995 dunk in Cameron was emotional in Chapel Hill, dark in Durham. Austin Rivers’ 2012 three-pointer at the Dean Dome saved a disappointing year for Duke and was a dagger for Carolina. Carolina came back from eight points with 17 seconds left – and no three-point lines – in 1974. Duke came back from 17 points with less than 12 minutes left in 1998.

A true Carolina fan will still talk about the season Krzyzewski sat out with late issues — and criticize that Duke officials attributed the Blue Devils’ 4-15 record without head coach to assistant Pete Gaudet. A true Duke fan wonders why, when it was discovered that the UNC gave credit for courses to students, including many athletes, who were not taught by instructors, the NCAA did not issue a comprehensive punishment. Ask each side who the officers favor perennially and eternally, and the answer is quick: the other guys.

“This is something I never thought about and never would,” Davis said.

That is good. Your fan base won’t just think about it. Everything will bathe in it.

“It’s not about me,” Krzyzewski said, to which all Carolina fans would surely roll their eyes.

After 42 years at Duke, having won more games than any Division I coach in history, his words will ring true and fair at one end of the 13-kilometer stretch of US Highway 15-501 that separates the two schools. They will sound empty and false to each other. Whatever the interpretation, after the last of the 368 losses (which are thrown against 1,202 wins), Coach K wanted to talk about his guys.

“I said my whole career, or when I knew what the hell I was doing, I wanted my season to end where my team was crying tears of joy or tears of sadness,” Krzyzewski said, “because you knew then they gave everything”.

The Blue Devils cried Saturday night. The rivalry will survive and even thrive after this unprecedented encounter. But without Krzyzewski’s growl and Krzyzewski’s smile, it won’t be the same. When he coached his first game against the Tar Heels, Smith was the legend of the opposing side and Davis had yet to show up to Chapel Hill to play for the Hall of Fame. Now, Smith has passed away, as has Bill Guthridge, his successor. Roy Williams, another Hall of Famer, retired two months before Krzyzewski announced he would step down.

There are many layers to process. Krzyzewski was unwilling to sue them on Saturday.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I was blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re going to come out feeling great, or you’re going to be in agony. But you will always feel good about being in the arena.

“And I’m sure that’s what, when I look back, I’ll miss it. 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 experience.”

He left the arena on Saturday night. The fact that he did that and Carolina stayed doesn’t hurt his legacy in any way. But he gave Tar Heel fans a memory that will forever bring a smile. It can rain. Maybe you have a flat tire. But in their first and only meeting at the NCAA tournament, Carolina beat Duke. Repeat it to infinity.

What happens on Monday night against Kansas is going to be big and big. But on Saturday night, in the most important game of college basketball’s most important rivalry, North Carolina extended a mad dash and ended a legendary career. What better time in Chapel Hill could there be?

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