DURHAM, N.C. — North Carolina spoiled the emotional home finale of retiring Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski, beating fourth-ranked rival Duke 94-81 on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The day that was all about the coach who has 1,196 career victories and five NCAA championships abruptly turned into a season-defining performance for the Tar Heels, who played fearlessly in an extra rowdy arena and shot 59% after halftime.
By the final minutes, the Tar Heels (23-8, 15-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) were stretching the lead to double figures, hitting clinching free throws and leaving the “Cameron Crazies” in disbelief that Krzyzewski’s final home game after 42 years at the helm of Duke would end this way.
The school held an on-court ceremony for Krzyzewski after the game, though the coach first grabbed the microphone with the loss on his mind.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” he began, then waved off cheers from the fans. “Today was unacceptable, but the season has been very acceptable. And the season isn’t over.”
Krzyzewski could only watch from his seat at the end, with UNC in firm control. And when the horn sounded, the Tar Heels mobbed each other to celebrate on the court, while Caleb Love — who overcame an 0-for-8 shooting start to score 15 of his 22 points after halftime — jawed at the Crazies.
Armando Bacot scored 23 points to lead UNC. Freshman Paolo Banchero scored 23 points for the Blue Devils (26-5, 16-4), who shot just 42%.
Krzyzewski’s Cameron farewell was highly anticipated since he announced his plan last June: A final season that would become a farewell tour of sorts, a last championship run with another talented team featuring high-end NBA-caliber talent.
He has spent the better part of that time deflecting questions about his looming retirement — even eschewing the use of the word “last” — and trying to avoid being a distraction or creating additional pressure on his team. That began to change more in recent days as the moment drew near for a coach who has long taken a live-in-the-moment approach on everything.
Even then, he knew he would have to prepare for the emotional spectacle, saying he’d “have a meeting” to give himself the kind of chat he had given so many of his players before their final game.
More than 90 former players were in attendance, including some of the program’s biggest names like Grant Hill, Shane Battier, J.J. Redick, Jay Williams, Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner.
They gathered to create two lines on the court — several motioning to the student section for more noise or capturing video with their cellphones — to make an aisle for Krzyzewski to walk to midcourt to join them for a group photo captured from the rafters.
After returning for the final pregame minutes, Krzyzewski appeared to be fighting back tears during the national anthem and dabbing his eyes with a tissue during the final huddle before tipoff.
Associate head coach Jon Scheyer, who is designated as Krzyzewski’s successor next season, took a moment to pat his mentor on the right shin before the opening tip.
UNC: First-year coach Hubert Davis said he wasn’t focused on the “pageantry” of Saturday’s farewell, but was instead worried about preparing his team to compete. He certainly did that, with the Tar Heels attacking the rim and showing a competitive fire that wasn’t apparent in the earlier 87-67 loss in Chapel Hill. By far, it is UNC’s best win this season, and represented a huge improvement for an NCAA Tournament resume that was light on high-quality wins.
Duke: The Blue Devils had already secured the program’s first outright ACC regular-season title since 2006 and had lost just once since mid-January, falling at home on a last-second 3-pointer to Virginia. But this time, they couldn’t corral UNC’s backcourt of Love and R.J. Davis — who struggled mightily against Duke’s pressure defense in the first meeting — and couldn’t manage a response as the Tar Heels made their move in the final 6 minutes.
THE GUEST LIST
The former Blue Devils players weren’t the only notable names in the cramped confines of the 82-year-old arena where Krzyzewski has won 88% of his games over 42 seasons.
According to the school, the guest list for Krzyzewski’s going-away party included comedian Jerry Seinfeld, actor/comedian Ken Jeong, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and quarterback Kyler Murray of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
There was also the sighting of retired NBA great Dirk Nowitzki, who took a walkthrough of the Duke practice facility earlier Saturday and ran into current player Wendell Moore Jr. — who quickly asked for a photo with the former world champion.
UNC: The Tar Heels own the No. 3 seed for the ACC Tournament in New York and open play in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Duke: The Blue Devils hold the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament and also open play Thursday.