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It was shaping up to be a perfect day for Coach K's last game in Cameron. But then the unthinkable happened

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski will have a chance to put the storybook ending on his career in the upcoming ACC and NCAA tournaments.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski will have a chance to put the storybook ending on his career in the upcoming ACC and NCAA tournaments.

What just happened?

Let’s be honest. Everything else Saturday went according to plan. College Gameday made its triumphant return to Cameron Indoor Stadium, fatheads of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski dotted Section 17 and the few North Carolina fans in the stands got booed mercilessly.

Krzyzewskiville featured a four-hour party in the afternoon, a party that featured a lot of music, a lot of alcohol and certainly a lot of anticipation. 

That led straight into a nostalgic congregation of former Blue Devil greats, all of whom formed a tunnel for Krzyzewski to walk through, roughly 10 minutes before Duke and North Carolina tipped things off. It was, to be fair, shaping up to be the ideal day in Durham. 

But then, the unthinkable happened. Duke lost

“Just disappointed that we lost. That was a game we gotta win for Coach, and we didn’t,” freshman Paolo Banchero said, his dejected expression impossible to misunderstand. 

The entire day, and really the entire week, that concept was not even in the realm of possibility. Not on what Krzyzewski deemed his “Senior Night”. Not with generations of Duke legends, from Gene Banks to Christian Laettner to Shane Battier to JJ Redick, standing right behind the home bench, not sitting once during the action. 

But North Carolina, via a performance one could only describe as fearless, marched right into Cameron, snagged a 94-81 victory and hopped on the bus to make the short trek back over to Chapel Hill, where a jubilant student body awaited on Franklin Street.

“Hubert [Davis] had them so well prepared. And they didn't play well against us the last time, and their program, like ours, is built on a lot of pride,” Krzyzewski said in his postgame presser.

Throughout the season, Krzyzewski has deflected questions regarding this so-called farewell tour, focusing on the immediate task at hand virtually without fail. 

It’s tough to blame him, either, considering that approach, while no doubt leading to some long nights over the last 47 years in coaching, was the foundation for the five national title banners overlooking the court that bears his name—the living embodiment of which came in the form of 96 of his former players in attendance.

But the emotion and the finality of this night appeared to set in for Krzyzewski and the program over these last few days. Add in the clinching of the outright ACC regular-season crown, and it was the perfect storm for some wackiness once the actual game began.

“Basically, we're living in a penthouse the last few days, with room service and everyone saying nice things,” Krzyzewski said. “And we didn't play hungry today.

“You don’t just win a game, you win a culmination of a number of games,” Krzyzewski said on what that ACC title truly signified. “So it’s an accomplishment, and then you have this game, which is like it’s own entity. And we were never able to move to that level, and that’s on me to do that.”

Even the postgame ceremony, a full-on tribute to Coach K’s career, felt subdued. 

There were the speeches and gifts from Mychal Harrison, president of the Duke Alumni Board of Directors, and athletic director Nina King, along with President Vincent Price announcing that the University is establishing the Krzyzewski Family Scholarship. 

There was Krzyzewski, surrounded by his wife, daughters and grandchildren at midcourt, calling Cameron “our home” and saying that “I love my family more than basketball.” 

But in earnest, the true sticking point of those festivities was when Krzyzewski stepped up to the mic before they began, shushed the crowd and defiantly said, “I am sorry. Today was unacceptable.” 

In that moment, the fire that burns within bubbled to the surface. A drone video featuring a smiling Coach K calling Cameron “the greatest sports venue in the world” was about to play, and yet still, the man who is but a few weeks away from retirement showed that losing still pains him. 

“I told Jon [Scheyer] and the guys, ‘You guys go out and recruit all summer, I'm gonna know this team, I am gonna dive in this team deeper than I've been able to do, because you have to go out and recruit all the time.’ And so I know my guys, and I wanted this year to be a really good coaching job, not a retirement year, and to stay hungry,” Krzyzewski said.

Don’t kid yourself. North Carolina was, to put it mildly, brilliant on this night. Armando Bacot was incredible down low, Brady Manek hit five triples, each more backbreaking than the previous, and the Tar Heels went 86.4% from the line despite the raucous environment.

That offset Banchero’s 23-point, five-rebound, five-assist evening, Mark Williams going 8-of-11 from the field and Jeremy Roach, with 15 huge points, saving the Blue Devils for stretches. 

Yet quite frankly, the basketball side of things only served as part of what was a surreal scene in Cameron. And the fact that North Carolina actually won the contest, as laughable as that was at 6:20 p.m. Saturday, capped off a week in which the level of attention towards this program has been downright unprecedented. 

“I was trying to beat my own emotion to make sure that I wasn't coaching me during that time. You have to get over it. And when you do, it means a lot, just all this stuff means a lot. And the clock's ticking…. Cameron has been such a very special place for me, and I’m disappointed I was not able to honor it today at the level that it needed to be honored,” Krzyzewski said on everything that went into the lead-up to Saturday.

Duke, as the top seed and clear favorite in next week’s ACC tournament, will likely get over it. Banchero said as much, referencing his “24-hour rule” after the contest. 

But Krzyzewski’s career in Cameron was supposed to end in fairytale fashion. 

When it didn’t, an incredibly emotional few days reached its stunning climax. 


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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