NEW ORLEANS—That’s it.
Final Four stage. New Orleans. Two fierce rivals, in a unique and unprecedented duel that was more of a raucous concert than a basketball game.
Ultimately, North Carolina kept the tunes playing for just a little while longer than Duke, winning an 81-77 national semifinal thriller in front of over 70,000 observers in the Caesars Superdome. With that, the Blue Devils' thrilling ride through the NCAA Tournament, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski's career, came to a close.
"Tonight was a battle," Krzyzewski said. "It was a game that the winner was gonna be joyous and the loser was gonna be in agony."
With just over 40 seconds to go and Duke down 75-74, Mark Williams was sent to the line after Armando Bacot picked up his fifth foul. Standing 15 feet from the basket, set to take the two biggest free throws of his life, the Virginia Beach, Va., native missed both.
Caleb Love then hit a massive three from the top of the key with 24.8 seconds left, giving North Carolina a four-point lead. Jeremy Roach followed with a quick drive and finish, then Love went to the line for two free throws of his own.
He split the pair, and Duke raced it up the floor in a hurry. Trevor Keels got fouled and hit one to cut it to 79-77, then Love hit both free throws with 8.2 seconds remaining to basically seal it.
"We had our chances in the last couple minutes, like 'We got a one-point lead, if you can get a stop.' But they're good, they really put a lot of pressure on you offensively," Krzyzewski said.
It was obvious that neither team would flinch from the outset of the second half. After Williams and Banchero jammed it home on consecutive possessions, Duke held a 41-34 lead with just under 19 minutes remaining.
But North Carolina snatched all the momentum back in emphatic fashion, as two triples from Love and one from Brady Manek spurred a 13-0 Tar Heel run.
"It was our defense," Manek said on what sparked that surge. "What we were doing on [the] defensive end allowed us to get transition points. And a lot of those points of that 13 [-point] run came from running in transition, layups, kicking it for three."
With Duke trailing 47-41, a spark was certainly needed. On cue, Keels rejoined the party after his impressive first half. The freshman guard hit a crucial three from the left wing to cut the Tar Heel edge in half, showing that Duke would not back down easily.
That set an epic second half in motion.
"As a coach, you are allowed to go into that arena with amazing competitors, people who want to achieve at the highest level," Krzyzewski said. "And then if you can teach them to achieve together at that highest level, then you come out of there in good shape. That's the beauty of being a coach."
With a deafening crowd living and dying with every dribble, shot and second, one question emerged. Who would answer the bell, sending their team to the national title game and etching their name into Duke-North Carolina lore?
For Duke, it looked to be Banchero, who was relentless with the ball in his hands. Manek just had no chance of stopping the potential top NBA Draft pick, and when Banchero got a tough floater to go with just under 11 minutes to go, it was tied at 55-55.
In 39 minutes of work, the second team All-American was brilliant. Banchero, with 20 points, 10 boards and two blocks, nearly pushed Duke over the top.
"I'm just proud to have played with this group," Banchero said. "We gave it our all, and it sucks that we came up short. But I'm proud of the effort we put in, and the way we went out."
Yet North Carolina just was rolling offensively during that stretch, and a quick 7-2 Tar Heel run made it 62-57 in favor of the guys from Chapel Hill. Just 7:44 remained, with Duke facing a straightforward proposition—make its third late-game rally of this NCAA tournament, or see their season, and head coach’s storied career, end.
Krzyzewski opted to go small out of that timeout, putting Banchero at the five. It worked, in a big way. Roach and Keels got out in transition, and a 6-0 Blue Devil run put the guys from Durham back on top.
"These guys made unbelievable plays, right after one another, to put us in this position," Krzyzewski said. "But tonight, we still made some plays, but not enough."
North Carolina, meanwhile, was putting the ball in RJ Davis and Love’s hands and letting its guard tandem dictate the result. Via high ball screens and nifty handles, the pair got to their spots off the bounce consistently.
For the night, the duo combined for 46 points and five 3-pointers. They contributed half of the Tar Heels' 10 triples, a mark that doubled Duke's total.
"Tonight we took shots that we needed to take, and Caleb and RJ and Brady, and also Leaky [Black], stepped up and made shots from three, and put us in a position to win," North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis said.
This may sound like hyperbole, but there is no doubt that this was one of the most highly anticipated contests in college basketball history—if not the most. Hours upon hours of ESPN, CBS and other outlets' coverage focused on Duke-North Carolina, and you could feel a palpable buzz throughout New Orleans the last couple days and in the building Saturday.
Once the game actually started, it was clear that this had the makings of a Final Four classic.
“It reached the level that you would expect," Krzyzewski said. "Those kids from both teams played their hearts out. The crowd was standing most of the game.”
After 1:37 of no scoring from either team, Leaky Black, not known as a sniper from downtown, hit a wide open 3-pointer from the left corner.
Duke, on the other hand, forced the issue inside from the jump, as Banchero and Williams combined for its first six points. The Seattle native also nailed a left wing triple to make it 11-10 Blue Devils, the start of what was a hectic middle stretch of the first half.
When Mark Williams picked up his second foul just five minutes in, Krzyzewski sent in Marquette transfer Theo John for some insurance down low.
John delivered offensively with two thunderous slams and a quick hook shot, but he racked up four fouls in the first half while battling with Bacot, the Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional, in the paint.
Bacot gave all three of Duke's bigs, not just John, trouble inside. Despite having to be helped off the floor due to an ankle injury with about five minutes left in the action, he checked back in a few possessions later.
He fouled out with under a minute left, but Bacot still snatched 21 rebounds.
Trevor Keels, coming off the bench for the entire tournament, got to the basket and finished through contact multiple times early. Duke spread the court and allowed its ball handlers to create off the dribble, which lined up perfectly for the Maryland native to drop eight points in 13 first-half minutes.
Keels ended with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and was the only Blue Devil with a positive plus/minus.
After the contest, the freshman guard put the season in perspective.
"It's always been my dream, to play for Duke, since I was a little kid and watching them on TV," Keels said. "And when I got the offer, and I committed, I was all in.
"I knew it was a brotherhood, but I didn't know it was this type of level. Everybody's family, everybody wants what's best for each other. Everybody loves each other."
With time running down before half and the score knotted at 34, Duke faced a crucial offensive possession. Thanks to a Jeremy Roach and-one after an aggressive drive to the rack, the Blue Devils entered the locker room up three.
One major dent in Duke’s armor early was its inability to keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass. North Carolina racked up 10 offensive boards, including four apiece from Black and Bacot, before halftime.
The Tar Heels now face Kansas, which handled Villanova 81-65 Saturday in the early semifinal, in the national title game Monday night at 8:49 p.m. It marks the final stop in what has been an unbelievable run as a No. 8 seed.
"We're so connected, on and off the court, and it doesn't guarantee wins, but it does put yourself in a position to maybe do something special," Hubert Davis said.
On the other hand, Duke’s season, and Krzyzewski’s 42-year run, ends. The Blue Devils compiled 32 wins and reached Coach K's 13th Final Four, yet falling in this spot will certainly sting for a long time.
"They've been an amazing group for me. The youngest team I've coached, and we had our chances tonight and they made a couple more plays than we did. But our guys played their hearts out," Krzyzewski said.
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Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.