NEW ORLEANS – Coach K’s last L was to UNC one W from the NC.
And there is no other way to spell or abbreviate it.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski’s last game as a basketball coach was an 81-77 loss on Saturday night in the Superdome to hated zip code neighbor North Carolina, just up Tobacco Road from his office in Durham, N.C. And it kept him out of the national championship game and shot at his sixth crown.
He will have to live with that for a long time.
“When you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony,” Krzyzewski, 75, said.
And Coach K, who announced his retirement last summer effective at the end of the season, lost to the worst seeded North Carolina team ever to reach the national title game. He finishes as the all-time winningest coach in college basketball with 1,202 wins, but those did not make loss No. 368 feel any less horrible.
“I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying,” he said. “And it’s a beautiful sight. It’s not the sight that I would want. I’d want the other. I’m just concerned about those guys. They were already crying on the court.”
And the No. 8 seeded Tar Heels were dancing.
North Carolina (29-9) will play No. 1 seed Kansas (33-6) at 9:20 p.m. eastern on Monday for the national championship. The Jayhawks beat No. 2 seed Villanova, 81-65, in the first game Saturday.
“It’s a blessing for me. It’s a privilege. It’s an honor,” North Carolina first-year coach Hubert Davis said. He was talking about reaching the national championship game, not “what it’s like to be the guy to hand the all-time winningest coach his final loss,” which is what he was asked.
“That’s something that I’ve never thought about and would never think about,” Davis said. “Coach K is unbelievable. And that team is the best team so far that we have played.”
It took a Michael Jordan-like, clutch 3-pointer from North Carolina guard Caleb Love to put Duke and Krzyzewski away. Love hit it with 24.8 seconds to play for a commanding, 78-74 lead, and the Tar Heels held on. Jordan hit a 16 footer with 15 seconds left 40 years ago this week in the same Superdome to give North Carolina a 63-62 win over Georgetown for coach Dean Smith’s first national championship.
“It means everything to me,” said Love, a sophomore from St. Louis who was recruited by Duke. “Just one game away from a national championship. What else can you say?”
Goodbye to Coach K, or “Happy retirement,” perhaps, for starters.
“It just happened to be in my hands, so I made the play,” said Love, who finished with a game-high 28 points.
Before Love’s shot, no more than three points had separated the ACC combatants since the 7:36 mark of the second half. There were 18 lead changes and 12 ties in all in a thrilling game that matched the billing of the first-ever Duke-North Carolina NCAA Tournament game after 36 shared NCAA Tournaments. And then some.
“I think it reached a level that you would expect,” Krzyzewski said. “Those kids from both teams played their hearts out. I mean, the crowd was standing most of the game. It was a heck of a game. And so it met up to that.”
R.J. Davis added 18 for North Carolina, and Brady Manek scored 14. Armando Bacot grabbed 21 rebounds and scored 11 points and shook off a right ankle injury with 5:18 to play when he stepped on a teammate’s foot. He fouled out with 46.7 seconds to play and North Carolina up, 75-74, just before Love’s critical three-pointer.
Paolo Banchero led No. 2 seed Duke (32-7) with 20 points, and Trevor Keels scored 19 of the bench.
Duke’s largest lead was 41-34 early in the second half. Then North Carolina went on a 13-0 run to take its biggest lead at 47-41 minutes later. North Carolina’s largest lead in the first half was 11-6. Duke answered that and took a 24-18 lead before taking a 37-34 lead into halftime.
“It was disjointed, which games like that can be,” Krzyzewski said. “Tonight was a battle. I mean, it was a game that the winner was going to be joyous, and the loser was going to be in agony. And that’s the type of game we expected.”
And a tough one to walk away from … forever.
“I’ll be fine,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, 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.”
No, Krzyzewski will not be in the Superdome Monday night for one last championship game.
“But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time,” he said. “And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”