NEW ORLEANS — Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s remarkable career came to sudden close Saturday night after Caleb Love made a key 3-pointer and three late free throws to lift archrival North Carolina to a thrill-a-minute 81-77 victory over the Blue Devils.
This was the 258th, most consequential and maybe, just maybe, the very best meeting between these teams, whose arenas are separated by a scant 11 miles down in Tobacco Road.
The Tar Heels (29-9), of all teams, pinned the 368th and final loss on the 75-year-old Coach K, exactly four weeks after they ruined the going-away party in his final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That loss hurt. This one stopped the coach’s storybook run one win away from a title game and a chance at his sixth championship. When it was over, after playing through the nip-and-tuck stretch run without a timeout, Krzyzewski walked calmly to half court and shook the hand of Carolina’s rookie coach, Hubert Davis.
So, instead of Krzyzewski going for his sixth title on Monday, Carolina will go for its seventh. It will be Love, who led the Tar Heels with 28 points, and R.J. Davis, who scored 18, going against Kansas, which beat Villanova 81-65 earlier in the undercard.
The main event lived up to the hype. It featured 18 lead changes and 12 ties.
At around the 2-minute mark, the teams traded three straight 3s. Wendell Moore Jr.’s 3-pointer with 1:19 left ended the flurry and gave Duke a 74-73 lead. It was the last lead of Krzyzewski’s career.
R.J. Davis came back with two free throws, then after Duke’s Mark Williams, in foul trouble all night, missed a pair from the line, Carolina worked the ball around the perimeter.
Tar Heels guard Leaky Black set a pick – make that threw a block – on Trevor Keels to free up Love, who drained a 3 for a four-point lead and what felt like massive breathing room.
Love made three more free throws down the stretch, and then it was over. Krzyzewski walked off the Superdome floor hand in hand with his wife, Mickie.
Hubert Davis was crying again, much as he did last weekend when North Carolina punched its ticket to its record 21st Final Four.
“I felt like over the last two or three years, North Carolina wasn’t relevant,” said Davis, who replaced the legendary Roy Williams. “North Carolina should never be irrelevant. It should be front and center with the spotlight on them.”