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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coach K’s career ends with joy and agony in college basketball Armageddon

Mike Krzyzewski lost his final game against North Carolina and Hubert Davis. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

NEW ORLEANS — If it ever came to this — college basketball’s unthinkable Armageddon, Duke vs. North Carolina not just in the NCAA men’s tournament, but in the Final Freaking Four — it had to play out as it did Saturday night in the Superdome. In Mike Krzyzewski’s final season as the Blue Devils’ coach and Hubert Davis’s first with the Tar Heels, the adversaries headed to their huddles with 78 seconds remaining. None among the 70,602 assembled here had a clue who would win.

Who knew that stomach linings could be eaten away, that jet-black hair could turn gray, over the course of two-and-a-half hours? Souls and lifetimes have been poured into this rivalry. Two fan bases needed defibrillators just to be breathing by the end.

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

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

Final: North Carolina 81, Duke 77.

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

North Carolina’s dream is Duke’s nightmare in epic Final Four game

Plenty. This was dizzying, regardless of the teams. That it was these two? In these circumstances? Please.

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

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

And because of that, there’s fallout — delirious or devastating depending on your perspective. First is that North Carolina never, ever again has to debate the most satisfying victory over its despised rival. The debate now becomes: Is this the most satisfying win among the program’s 2,322 victories over 112 seasons?

There was Dean Smith’s first championship in 1982, when Michael Jordan was a freshman and hit the game-winner against Georgetown in this same building. There was Smith’s second and last title, also won here, 11 years later. There were the three championships earned by Roy Williams’s teams.

They didn’t — they couldn’t — have the depth of feeling this victory did. It’s not that Monday’s championship game against Kansas is secondary. It’s just that Duke-Carolina has no peer, and the sport’s pinnacle is the Final Four, where they had never met. The whole package is such that Carolina force Armando Bacot, who willed his way to 21 rebounds, badly twisted his ankle in the final minutes. His postgame assessment: “I feel amazing. I feel great. Better than ever.” A cure-all.

There was far too much going on here. The two fan bases — one in sky blue, the other in royal blue, polar opposites even if they’re just different hues — were seated diagonally from each other. Best to keep them separated.

When Love converted a drive that forced a Duke timeout in the midst of what became a 13-0 Tar Heels’ run, he could have raced to one corner — near his own bench — and fired up the faithful. Instead, he stomped toward the Duke crowd and flexed. When Love then air-balled a three-pointer moments later, the Blue Devils crowd roared at him. The rivalry is built upon that kind of equal time between supporting your own and dissing the other.

So at airport gates and in rental car lines — not to mention the saloons that spilled into the streets of this hard-partying town — the history and the stakes dominated conversation all week. There’s no moment that can’t be relived and re-litigated. Memories are long. These two fan bases don’t agree on whether water is wet, so parsing the best moments of the rivalry isn’t so much a sport as it is a way of life.

Jerry Stackhouse’s up-and-under baseline dunk in 1995 at Cameron was exhilarating in Chapel Hill, dark in Durham. Austin Rivers’s buzzer-beating three-pointer in 2012 at the Dean Dome salvaged an otherwise underwhelming year for Duke and was a dagger for Carolina. Carolina came back from eight points down with 17 seconds left — and no three-point line — in 1974. Duke came back from 17 down with less than 12 minutes left in 1998.

A true Carolina fan will still bring up the season Krzyzewski sat out with back issues — and rail that Duke officials assigned the Blue Devils’ 4-15 record without their head coach to assistant Pete Gaudet. A true Duke fan wonders why, when UNC was found to have given credit for courses to students, including many athletes, that weren’t taught by instructors, the NCAA didn’t issue a sweeping punishment. Ask each side whom officials perennially and eternally favor, and the answer is swift: The other guys.

The grievances are both petty and enormous. And now came a chapter separate from all that preceded it. Davis, in his first season as the head coach at his alma mater, beating Krzyzewski in his final game at Cameron, then beating him in the Final Four, ending his career?

“That’s something that I’ve never thought about and would never think about,” Davis said.

That’s fine. His fan base won’t just think about it. It will all but bathe in it.

“It’s not about me,” Krzyzewski said, to which every Carolina fan surely rolled her or his eyes.

After 42 years at Duke, after winning more games than any Division I coach in history, his words will ring true and righteous at one end of the eight-mile stretch of U.S. highway 15-501 that separates the two schools. They will ring hollow and disingenuous at the other. Whatever the interpretation, after the last of 368 losses (which are cast against 1,202 wins), Coach K wanted to talk about his guys.

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

The Blue Devils cried Saturday night. The rivalry will survive, and even thrive, after this unprecedented meeting. But without Krzyzewski’s snarl and Krzyzewski’s smile, it won’t be the same. When he coached his first game against the Tar Heels, Smith was the legend on the opposite sideline and Davis hadn’t yet shown up in Chapel Hill to play for the Hall of Famer. 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.

That’s a lot of layers to process. Krzyzewski wasn’t up for processing them Saturday.

“I’ll be fine,” he 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 gonna feel agony. But you always will feel great about being in the arena.

“And I’m sure that 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. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”

He exited the arena Saturday night. That he did so and Carolina remained doesn’t damage his legacy in the least. But it gave Tar Heel fans a memory that will eternally elicit a smile. It might rain. Maybe you get a flat tire. But in their first and only meeting in the NCAA tournament, Carolina beat Duke. Repeat it ad infinitum.

What happens Monday night against Kansas will matter, and greatly. But on Saturday night, in the most important game of college basketball’s most important rivalry, North Carolina extended a crazy run and ended a legendary career. What better moment in Chapel Hill could there be?