NEW ORLEANS—One of the players on the court was virtually guaranteed to deliver a moment that their respective stadium would play in its pregame hype videos for decades.
With just over a minute left to play in the Superdome, it looked like Wendell Moore Jr. was going to be that guy.
North Carolina forward Brady Manek had just drained the go-ahead three over Moore, and the latter didn’t seem to like that too much. The Charlotte native caught a tip from Paolo Banchero, dribbled twice and stroked the stepback three to put Duke ahead 74-73. That would be the last time head coach Mike Krzyzewski led in his career. Forty-five seconds later, Caleb Love nailed a triple of his own to ice the game for the Tar Heels, delivering the Jumbotron highlight reel footage.
This loss in April, this close to the storybook ending, hurts no doubt, but let’s rewind to June 2021.
“We’re motivated to really send him out on top and do everything we can to make this last year one of his best years that he’s had coaching,” Moore said at head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement press conference.
Since that day, Moore and company have had to deal with everything being a Krzyzewski last. The season started out looking like that looming presence wouldn’t have an effect. Duke took down Kentucky in the mecca of college basketball and downed Gonzaga in Las Vegas.
But a few days after the Gonzaga win, the Blue Devils lost to Ohio State. Then a few weeks later against Miami. Then to two other ACC teams prior to their last home game. After Duke lost against North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and fell to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament championship game, it looked like the pressure of being Krzyzewski’s last team was too much.
Ten months after Moore said that team goal, he and his squad can look at a season that consisted of 32 wins, an ACC regular-season championship and a Final Four appearance. And they learned how to do it under the microscope of being Krzyzewski’s last team.
“I’m proud of what my guys have done,” Krzyzewski said after the Final Four game.
There’s been a lot for this team to be proud of, both on individual and collective levels. AJ Griffin emerged from playing a combined eight minutes in Duke’s games against Gonzaga and Ohio State to starting in the Final Four. Banchero already came in as a star but finished his freshman season noticeably more polished as a passer and defender. The backcourt trio of Trevor Keels, Jeremy Roach and Moore drove the offense to 80.1 points per game. Big man Mark Williams likely cemented his first-round NBA Draft status after proving that the Louisville game in the 2021 tournament was a regularity and not an anomaly.
They did it all together, which was a big reason why the season was going to end in tears regardless of whether Duke lost against North Carolina or hoisted the national championship trophy.
“I wanted my seasons to end where my team was either crying tears of joy or tears of sorrow because then you knew that they gave everything,” Krzyzewski said. “And I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying.”
At moments throughout the game, it looked like those tears would be of joy. Banchero racked up 20 points on hard takes to the rim, dribbling and spinning his way past Manek and big man Armando Bacot. Keels drained two second-half triples on his way to 19 points and his best tournament performance, one of those threes putting Duke up 71-70.
But it wasn’t enough, and when the final buzzer rang the Superdome was filled with the full spectrum of human emotion.
Moore stood on the side of the key with his hands on his knees and Keels looked distraught after missing the final shot. Neither was alone though, with Michael Savarino putting a hand on Moore’s back and big man Theo John doing the same to Keels.
“Everybody’s family. Everybody wants what’s best for each other. Everybody loves each other,” Keels said.
This team didn’t give Krzyzewski what, on a surface level look, seemed like the perfect parting gift, but basketball has become about so much more than that to Krzyzewski.
He’s said multiple times throughout this past week that it is an honor for someone to be a coach or a teacher in someone’s life. A priest and a coach changed his life in a way he didn’t think was possible, so being a coach or teacher is what he’s wanted to do since he was 16. It explains why, even though “Coach K” has become Krzyzewski’s nickname, he’s just “Coach” to his players.
“It’s not about me, especially right now. As a coach, I’m just concerned about these guys…,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the only thing you can think about.”
To conclude his final game as head coach, Krzyzewski had his family, both basketball and blood, with him in the press conference. Keels talked about how Krzyzewski knew when to get on him when he needed it. Banchero talked about The Brotherhood, and how Krzyzewski lived up to everything he told him in the recruiting process.
“Coach delivered on every promise he gave us, and even more,” Moore said. Earlier in the press conference, Krzyzewski sent the same level of praise to the players.
"They've been just a joy for me to coach," he said.
In the last moment the public saw Mike Krzyzewski as Duke’s head coach, he was sitting on the back of a golf cart with his wife Mickie, riding off into the distance.
“You can superimpose a sunset,” he joked to the reporters.
Wherever that sunset is, Krzyzewski will be there with Mickie beside him, his family with him and The Brotherhood around him.
Maybe he did get the storybook ending after all.
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.