Somewhere in this weird and misbegotten country Mike Krzyzewski woke up today without a job and only the taste of vile ash deep in his throat, the haunting vision of a Caleb Love three-pointer taking away the one thing he valued most in his life.
On Saturday night, North Carolina beat Duke 81-77 to advance to the national championship game against Kansas on Monday. On a night that seemed to have entirely too much significance grafted onto it by the wider sports universe, we ended up having a hell of a good basketball game to watch thanks to players like North Carolina’s Love and Duke’s Paolo Banchero wrestling the spotlight away from Krzyzewski’s farewell tour.
There is a creaky and banal thing that college coaches love to say around the most meaningful games: it’s not about me, it’s all about the kids. It’s usually a tired and insincere deflection, especially in college atmospheres that transform the job of drawing up plays into Shaper Of Great Men And Those With Great Character, Who Also Generate High Market Value In Professional Sports.
But on Saturday it actually felt like it was about the people actually playing basketball. Love scoring 28 points, his final six points securing the championship for the Tar Heels. Banchero alternating jumpers and ungodly dunks! Armando Bacot going for 21 rebounds and his 30th double-double—and breaking Tim Duncan’s single season ACC record of 29—and somehow returning to the game after injuring his ankle! The last three minutes of the game felt breathless as the teams traded shots: Duke went up 71-70 on a Trevor Keel three, only to have North Carolina’s Brady Manek come down to the opposite end to knock down a three. Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. then came back with this and it sure as hell seemed like the Blue Devils were going to play for another championship:
Duke was the favorite coming in, and after some initial spastic messiness in the early minutes of the first half, it felt like the Blue Devils figured out the plan: beat North Carolina off the dribble and get Mark Williams and Banchero going in the paint. Foul trouble threw that plan into doubt when Williams got sent to the bench after picking up two fouls with 15 minutes left in the first half, and Theo John, replacing Williams, grabbed four fouls in 11 minutes. Still, Banchero seemed like he could do anything he wanted, playing center for Duke in the end of the first half while also hitting pull up threes.
North Carolina’s shooters were cold early on, going 35.3 percent in the first half, with R.J. Davis keeping the Tar Heels alive by scoring 14 of the team’s 34 points. They turned that around in the second half by forcing turnovers, Manek suddenly remembering he could hit three pointers, and Love making a case for why he should be a lottery pick in the NBA draft. With Duke’s big men in foul trouble, Love made aggressive drives to the basket, hitting floaters and sweet finger rolls, sending North Carolina on a 11-0 run:
Bacot may have been the team’s leading scorer this season, but it was Love who made the difference Saturday night, with 22 of his 28 points coming in the second half of the game. Watching North Carolina in the closing minutes, you felt like they didn’t just want the game, they wanted to seize the moment: Manek sinking threes, Davis making key free throws. It was only when Bacot limped off the floor that North Carolina coach Hubert Davis made his first substitution of the second half.
The Tar Heels now move on to play for a national title against a Kansas team that has quietly steamrolled anything that has gotten in its path so far. On paper that’s the grand prize; the sparkling trophy and cheap T-shirt, drowning in a sea of confetti while serenaded by the ghost Luther Vandross.
But along the way they helped an old man on his way into the greener pastures of life without gainful employment. And not only did they piss in the punch bowl at Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, they brought a fiery and righteous ending to Duke’s title run. They stomped out the dream of the victorious last dance, not just denying an arc hrival a title, but snatching away the tidy and noble legacy that was the only spark that animated Krzyzewski’s existence.
Win or lose on Monday night, North Carolina received a gift more valuable than anything else on earth.