Coach K’s final home game: UNC turns Mike Krzyzewski’s Cameron Indoor Stadium finale into its own celebration
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Coach K’s final home game: UNC turns Mike Krzyzewski’s Cameron Indoor Stadium finale into its own celebration

DURHAM, N.C. — This is what can happen when you try to plan a retirement ceremony with 9,000 of your closest friends, with the tricky caveat of including a basketball game. 

This was to be Mike Krzyzewski’s night. Duke staged one of the grandest send-offs college sports had ever seen. It was nostalgic. It was elaborate. It was quintessentially Duke. Which means a lot of people loved it and a lot of people hated it. Which means it was perfectly done. All of this created the biggest buildup, probably ever, to a regular-season college basketball game.

And then the greatest rivalry in American sports added to its legend with one of the more surprising upsets in its 102-year history. 

Unranked, bubble-team-supreme North Carolina 94, No. 4 Duke 81. A Saturday night stunner at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

Krzyzewski’s home finale farewell was officially sabotaged by Hubert Davis’ upset-minded Tar Heels. Who were these guys, by the way? Not the same group that got pasted by 20 at home against Duke a month ago. That team scored 67 and was flat embarrassed. Saturday night’s squad averaged a terrific 1.25 points per possession and looked like a top-10 team in the country. North Carolina, an 11.5-point underdog, didn’t just beat Duke, it ran away with the game and ruined Krzyzewski’s valediction in appropriate fashion.

Seldom are the nights when these two undying nemeses come together and either team is overwhelmingly presumed to beat the other. Foolishly, most of us thought just that. 

UNC handed K an L and snatched a W so sweet, it immediately ranks near the top of the Tar Heels’ greatest regular-season victories in the 100-plus year history of this proud program.  

This is how you rivalry. 

“Hate to use the Navy term,” Krzyzewski, the West Point grad, said. “But keep a ship afloat. Our ship was going to sink today, no matter what.”

The postgame festivities at Cameron were to be a celebration of an unparalleled career. And they were, but that fête came with awkwardness. After the loss, Duke players walked out, sullen, and wound up sitting on the bench where UNC was just moments earlier. Krzyzewski reemerged with some understandable disappointment in his face. He held the hand of his beloved wife, Mickie, then leaned into a quick off-script commentary as he walked alone to the microphone staged at center court. 

“This isn’t part of the program,” he said. “This is impromptu by me. I’m sorry about this afternoon.” 

The place wanted to cheer despite the loss. Krzyzewski wasn’t having it.

“Everyone be quiet,” he said. “Let me just say, it’s unacceptable. Today was unacceptable, but the season has been very acceptable. And I’ll tell you, the season isn’t over.”

Then the cheers came. He wanted everyone to see that’s the guy who they needed to see in that moment. It’s who they saw most of the night, too, because North Carolina had Duke on its heels and Krzyzewski was vintage in his ire and fire. He rode the referees and looked nothing like a man ready to walk away from competition. This was Carolina, dammit. Afterward, he had nothing but compliments to pay to Davis’ players and program.

“Their program, like ours, is built on a lot of pride and they showed that today in coming here,” Krzyzewski said. 

With Dirk Nowitzki, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Silver, Kyler Murray and many more luminaries in the building, it’s fair to guess Cameron Indoor Stadium had never been this filled. The official capacity is 9,314, but it’s likely more than that got into the arena. Cameron Indoor got hot, stayed hot, and that added thickness to an environment that was already heavy as soon as the Cameron Crazies filed onto the rickety bleachers.

At their opposite was esteemed Duke basketball alumni — nearly 100 of them, almost half of Krzyzewski’s former players — packed the bleachers a few rows behind the Duke bench, most of them standing for the entire game. 

“It has been emotional but before the game you’re thinking and you get a little teary-eyed and then you say, ‘Whoa, I can’t do that,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “And so then you go on the court and then you feel it. Actually, when all the players were there, it was just, like, wow, it wasn’t as emotional as it was great.”

Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Jay Williams, JJ Redick, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Steve Wojciechowski and nearly 90 of their Brotherhood brethren stood the entire game behind the Duke bench. It felt like the varsity team watching the JV early tip. These guys wanted a Carolina crunching. They wanted no drama. A UNC-Duke game without theatrics, without tension. The kind of game they seldom were afforded.

Yeah, right. 

“The last few days has been so really good and it’s been like a celebration of our program and because I’m stopping coaching, it’s kind of like a celebration of me, which I don’t like that,” Krzyzewski said. “So, basically we’re living in a penthouse the last few days with room service and everyone saying nice things and we didn’t play hungry today.” 

North Carolina was laser-focused, and it started within minutes of the Tar Heels’ overtime victory on Monday vs. Syracuse. Davis walked into the locker room and told the team there was no time to celebrate. They had less than five days to prepare for the biggest game of the season. Duke awaited. It was time to get to work and keep focus. Davis played the situation perfectly. North Carolina effectively prepped and practice in obscurity the entire week. It was reduced to a bit player in the buildup to Saturday, the game itself feeling secondary to the Krzyzewski farewell. 

Just what North Carolina wanted. Krzyzewski admitted afterward he could feel it coming, too.

“I was worried about a few things going into the game,” Krzyzewski said. “One: them.”

Intrigue arrived immediately. UNC — which never led in its Feb. 5 loss to Duke — opened the game with a 9-2 lead. Duke didn’t grab the lead until the 11:07 mark. The Heels withstood a 14-0 first-half Blue Devils run, steadying themselves enough to cut the halftime deficit to two. 

It turned out to be the first time this season North Carolina would win a game despite losing at the half. It was also historic in this matter: Never before had UNC played a game that saw four Tar Heels score at least 20 points. On Saturday, it happened: Armando Bacot 23, Caleb Love 22, RJ Davis 21 and Brady Manek 20.

Bacot was brilliant. The player Krzyzewski said was the best in the ACC this season went 10 for 11 from the floor. He also had a big block late that stymied Duke’s bid to keep it close. 

Saturday was also North Carolina’s first victory as an unranked team vs. a top-five-ranked Blue Devils squad at Cameron since 1990.

“They’re a really good team and they played a lot better than we did today,” Krzyzewski said.

This was Davis’ 31st game as North Carolina coach. It was, by far, his best. It was North Carolina’s most impressive performance of the season, without a close second. Amazingly, Davis rode his iron five the entire second half. Bacot, Manek, Love, Davis and Black were never subbed out. Late in the game, when you might’ve suspected one more Duke push was coming, instead it was David and Manek again and again. Trevor Keels’ 3-pointer from the corner with 2:58 remaining cut it to a 79-74 North Carolina lead. It’s the last time Duke would have hope for the win. Manek answered with a 3-pointer from the opposite corner, boosting the lead back to eight and keeping Duke at bay. 

UNC outscored Duke 21-10 over the final 5:12. Duke missed seven of its final 10 shots. Duke bested North Carolina 58.1% to 38.9% in first-half shooting. The second 20 minutes was a script-flip: UNC hit on 59.4%; Duke withered with 42.1% shooting. Krzyzewski’s moment was melting away. Duke’s shots stopped falling, and all across Cameron faces began to droop, a stark contrast to the maybe-100 UNC fans squeezed behind the Tar Heels’ bench who began to pop with joy.  Outnumbered by 9,000-plus in this Gothic basketball cathedral, their time was coming. This was really going to happen.

After the game, this powerful scene in the locker room. Davis and Bacot embracing for more than a minute. Manek in tears, too. 

“He had some tough times at Oklahoma, and for him to be able to experience this side of it was huge,” UNC assistant Brad Frederick told CBS Sports. 

Making matters even better for UNC, the triumph doubles as a critical one for its NCAA Tournament résumé. Hard to see how the NCAA Tournament selection committee could keep this team out of the field, no matter what happens in the ACC Tournament. This team should be in.

As the clock expired, Carolina’s players convened on the court in blissful celebration. The Crazies were stunned. Love waved them goodbye before curling back into the handshake line. (And then we got a little extra rivalry saltiness, as Duke assistant Chris Carrawell didn’t shake hands with Davis, lighting up message boards and social media in the process.)

It was Krzyzewski’s day, then it was North Carolina’s night. The North Carolina bus pulled up to Franklin Street and stopped short of a police barricade around 9:30 p.m. Thousands were out in celebration. The players got out and joined Carolina students. They earned it. Even Davis was obliged to pop his head out and acknowledge the crowd. He has had a good year, and the fans haven’t always treated him that way. Maybe this night will turn things for the better.

Now the ACC Tournament awaits. Krzyzewski admitted the past three or four days had him a “little bit worn out.”

“I’m glad this is over,” he said. “Let’s just coach and see what the hell happens in the tournament. This has kind of been a surreal few days, and a big part of it occurred, I think, because we had already won (the ACC regular-season title). You don’t feel the pressure of we have to win that game.”

We could come to learn that the best thing for Duke was losing this game. The disappointment of this loss is probably never washing off (if there was one game in the regular season you couldn’t lose, it was this one), but the shock of it soon will. Perhaps that will bring Duke the same kind of urgency and focus that North Carolina deployed in Saturday night, when the best rivalry in American sports twisted the plot yet again.

Given the buildup and presumptive nature of a Duke win by plenty, it’s easily arguable this is the most gratifying — if not amusing — win for UNC fans over Duke ever. You get one chance to spoil Coach K’s final home game. Carolina passed the test. Its base will hold this over the Duke faithful forever. It’s so bitter for Duke, but that makes it tremendous for the rivalry. Down in Carolina, this one will live in conversation forever, no matter the favored shade of blue.