NEW ORLEANS — When Mike Krzyzewski announced on June 2, 2021, that he would be retiring as Duke basketball coach following the 2021-22 season, not even he could have imagined it ending like this.
A Final Four matchup against arch-rival North Carolina — a first-ever NCAA Tournament clash between the schools — to clinch a spot in Monday’s NCAA title game against Kansas.
In what was a back-and-forth affair fitting of college basketball’s greatest rivalry, Coach K’s young Blue Devils came up short in an instant classic, the No. 8-seeded Tar Heels outlasting Duke, 81-77, to bring an unceremonious end to Krzyzewski’s legendary coaching career.
First-year head coach Hubert Davis and North Carolina did not subscribe to the Coach K storybook ending narrative from the start, going toe-to-toe with their Tobacco Road rivals for 40 minutes. Balance was the name of the game for North Carolina, as four Tar Heels finished in double figures, led by guards Caleb Love (28 points) and R.J. Davis (18 points). Armando Bacot, who struggled from the field (3-for-10) and would later foul out, grabbed 21 rebounds in the victory.
The Blue Devils were paced by standout freshman Paolo Banchero, who led Duke with 20 points. As momentum swung back and forth, on a night Duke struggled mightily shooting from the perimeter (5-for-22), it was Banchero who kept Duke in it. Fellow freshman Trevor Keels was also a bright spot for the Blue Devils, chipping in 19 points, eight points above his season average.
But it was Carolina, which trailed by three at halftime, that would make the decisive plays down the stretch. Tied at 67 with 3 minutes, 32 seconds to play, Banchero put the Blue Devils ahead by one from the free throw line before Love answered with a go-ahead layup. From there, the teams traded leads before junior Wendell Moore Jr. hit a clutch three from straight on, putting the Blue Devils ahead, 74-73, with 1:18 remaining.
Davis quickly regained the lead for North Carolina with a pair of free throws, setting the stage for the biggest shot of the night.
Following two missed free throws from Duke center Mark Williams, Love drained a cold-blooded three with 24.8 seconds left, shooting right over the outstretched arms of the 7-foot Williams to give the Tar Heels a 78-74 lead they would not relinquish. Love said he came to North Carolina for these types of moments.
“Coach [Hubert Davis] puts the ball in me or R.J.’s hand and tell us to make a play,” Love said afterwards. “Whoever has the ball, we both made great plays and it just happened to be in my hands, so I made the play. And we came out on top.”
Coach Davis praised Love for stepping up in the key moment, saying Love is “one of those guys that ... wants that shot. He’s actually looking for that shot.
“And very few guys in that situation are looking for that type of shot. Caleb is one of them. He has the confidence to be able to knock it down.”
Duke would twice pull the game back to within two in the final minute, but the Blue Devils would not get closer, UNC making its free throws down the stretch to seal the deal. The Tar Heels will take on No.1-seeded Kansas on Monday night for the title.
Krzyzewski, who was seeking a sixth national championship, retires after 42 seasons at Duke, 5 years at Army, 1,569 games and an NCAA-record 1,202 wins.