NEW ORLEANS — In a city where evenings have been known to stray into the soupy air and decompose into woe or nausea, the storied men’s basketball program at Duke spent a frenzied Saturday night marching gamely into a nightmare. That nightmare will recur on a fiendish loop, howling through the coming years and decades, savaging Duke-lovers with groans and winces.
It will feature one of the tensest games in the 83-year history of the NCAA men’s tournament, a blurry national semifinal between towering rivals with 18 lead changes, five of those in the final 3:03. It will star North Carolina guard Caleb Love stepping to the top of the arc and rocketing in a manful three-point shot with 25 seconds left for a 78-74 lead that held. It will carry the sound of 70,602 in the Superdome, where winning sometimes seemed less paramount than not losing, and it will end every time with the eternal Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski walking off one last time after an 81-77 loss to the bitterest rival.
Somehow, the nightmare will note, Krzyzewski’s grand retirement tour and career would conclude at 1,570 games overall, 1,438 games in 42 seasons at Duke, a bewildering 132 NCAA tournament games, 1,202 wins and 101 tournament wins, but with two stark blemishes dangling off the back end: losses to, of all people, the rivals from Chapel Hill — located just eight miles up the road from Durham — who wobbled through parts of the season but suddenly won in both Krzyzewki’s ceremonial final home game and then in his 13th and final Final Four once fate cooked up a cruel rematch.
At the end, just before the eyes open, there will always be Tar Heels scrambling to a mass hug that started near the center of the court and hopped madly over to the corner. There will always be the fact that Krzyzewski’s farewell tour ended with a grown-up No. 8 seed North Carolina (29-9) felling Duke (32-7) to reach a most unlikely national title game with Kansas.
Emerging from the locker room after a long spell inside afterward, Krzyzewski and his wife Mickie looked crushed as they boarded a golf cart to one last interview room, where the coach said, “I’ve said my entire career — or when I knew what the hell I was doing — that I wanted my seasons to end where my team was either crying tears of joy or tears of sorrow, because then you knew that they gave everything. And I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying. 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.”
It will only tantalize in the nightmare that Duke’s young players pretty much handled the impossible pressure without wilting, that Paolo Banchero scored 20 points with 10 rebounds, that Trevor Keels outdid recent form for 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting. The ending will always rest on North Carolina’s Armando Bacot getting a whopping 21 rebounds, on Love’s 28 points, on shots from RJ Davis (18 points) and Brady Manek (14 points).
“I feel amazing,” Bacot said. “I feel great. Better than ever.”
“Our confidence never wavered,” Love said.
“I kept finding myself just zoning out,” North Carolina senior Leaky Black said, “and looking at how many people (witnessed). There were so many people.”
They saw North Carolina inch ahead from a 67-67 tie with 4:36 left to snare a game bloated with bigness, a game of excess in a city of excess, a game that doubled as an excuse to wet one’s shorts. It began with two rivals of close geographic proximity and highbrow mutual contempt, as a rivalry piled atop a coronation piled atop a Final Four piled atop a trilogy this season. By the time it finally started amid the kind of noise that makes neck hairs salute, it had become the game in which each shot seemed bigger than a shot, each rebound seemed an achievement and each turnover seemed totally understandable.
It seemed reasonable to feel scared of it.
So they combined to miss 13 of their first 17 shots and 43 of 71 by halftime. Nobody could do too much of anything, and nobody could blame them, so it became a romping cavalcade of missed shots, back and forth. Outside shots clanged or worse. People could, at least, make dunks. The people of a mad land had paid large sums to travel here and see missed shots, with the sums a factor in the misses.
By the end, the teams would reach 42.2 percent (North Carolina) and 41.7 percent (Duke).
Early on, Krzyzewski coached rather quietly from a stool, one level above the bench, looking ashen at times. First-year North Carolina coach Hubert Davis stood, walked, cajoled. The whole thing quickly took on the feel of something that would not meet decision easily, something bound for closeness and hairiness. “I don’t know if it’s living a dream," Davis would say later. “I’m just overwhelmed with thankfulness.”
Duke built a 34-28 lead with Banchero’s might among all else, but the Tar Heels noted the two-foul absence of 7-foot-1 Mark Williams and drove to the basket, bringing the game to one of its 12 ties at 34-34 just before halftime. Duke led 41-34 after halftime, but then out of the lighter blue came a Tar Heel surge of 13-0 that wrought booming cheers that seemed pregnant with relief and loathing. Love, returning to the shooting semiconsciousness that makes him alluring, launched a three from the right of the top that nudged in. He sent a three from the left that drained in. Banchero missed twice inside, and Manek went to the right corner to turn around a make a three that looked sure-thing from release. North Carolina got a turnover, and Love drove the fast break to a layup.
It stood 45-41, and soon 47-41, and the nervelessness the young Duke players had located in this tournament, they way they had solved the singular, precarious pressure of their coach’s exit tour, reached its latest, sternest test.
They passed that too, and when Wendell Moore Jr. got a steal and a galloping layup for a 51-49 lead, the game went into a phase of frantic wonder. Leaky Black hit a three (52-51, North Carolina). Moore hit a short jumper (53-52, Duke). Manek stuck a three from the left corner with a hand in his face (55-53, North Carolina). Banchero made the kind of power move pretty much impossible to defend (55-55). It built and built and built, North Carolina ahead 62-57, Duke ahead 63-62, ties at 65 and 67.
So, here it went: With 3:32 left, Banchero made one of two free throws. (Duke, 68-67.) With 3:03 left, Love made a gliding drive through the middle for a stirring layup. (North Carolina, 69-68.) At 2:07, Keels drained a three from the left. (Duke, 71-70.) At 1:41, Manek stuck a three from the left with a hand in his face. (North Carolina, 73-71.) At 1:20, Moore made a three from the top. (Duke, 74-73.) At 1:01, Davis made two free throws. (North Carolina, 75-74.) At 46.7 seconds, the giant Williams, extraordinary through this tournament, missed two free throws, and then came Love at 25 seconds.
“And I’ll be fine,” Krzyzewski would say soon enough. “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. And I’m sure that’s the thing when I 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,” until right there at the end, when the arena up and flung an agony harsh enough to mar peaceful slumber.