Mike Krzyzewski stoic after the final defeat against UNC

NEW ORLEANS – At the end of his last run came a long walk.

Beaten by his archrival, knocked down by a 3-point dagger in the last minute, Mike Krzyzewski opened his arms, got up from his stool on the sidelines and quietly retired.

He showed no emotion when he shook the hand of North Carolina manager Hubert Davis. Nor when Duke fans in the stands cheered reverently and shouted “We love you, coach!” as he walked off the floor.

When Krzyzewski found his wife Mickie waiting for him in front of the tunnel leading to Duke’s locker room, he wrapped her in a hug and said, “It’s okay.” He then walked hand in hand with her down the tunnel, swerving only to console guard freshman Trevor Keels, who was leaning against a wall with tears streaming down his cheeks.

For months, Duke has been struggling to give Krzyzewski the ultimate retirement gift to allow him to leave college basketball with a sixth national title. “This has been the motivation from the beginning,” explained freshman Paolo Banchero last week. “To send him to the top.”

On Saturday night, when an 81-77 loss to North Carolina brought Krzyzewski’s farewell tour to a thrilling and sudden conclusion, the Blue Devils were heartbroken over losing two wins before that goal. The fact that he came up against the hated Tar Heels, the same team that stunned Duke in Krzyzewski’s last home game last month, only made the result more heartbreaking.

April 2, 2022;  New Orleans, Los Angeles, United States;  Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski and guard Jeremy Roach (3) leave the pitch after a defeat to North Carolina's Tar Heels during the semi-finals of the Final Four of the 2022 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Caesars Superdome.  Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
April 2, 2022; New Orleans, Los Angeles, United States; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski and guard Jeremy Roach (3) leave the pitch after a defeat to North Carolina’s Tar Heels during the semi-finals of the Final Four of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Krzyzewski was one of the few Duke players or coaches to retreat into the loneliness of the post-game locker room with dry eyes and was also one of the only ones to walk away like that. For him, before he could grieve over the end of his extraordinary coaching career, he had a duty to comfort those close to him.

“It’s not about me, especially right now,” Krzyzewski said. “As a coach, I’m just worried about these guys.

“I don’t want any of these guys to walk away and say I should have taken that free throw. We win and lose together. We have won 32 games and two championships together. And that’s what I want them to understand ”.

From the moment Duke and North Carolina staged this unprecedented Final Four showdown, Saturday night’s game would always end with tears on one side and a wild party on the other. The first fight of the NCAA tournament between Blue Devils and Tar Heels saw two rivals who had met 257 times previously but never with a stake like this.

The 70,602 fans who filled the Superdome gave it a frenzied atmosphere worthy of the moment. The crowd was so deafening before the game that it practically drowned out Jim Nantz’s player introductions. Then the match began and the full-throated roars for each basket were those typically reserved for the last two minutes.

Duke and North Carolina helped by delivering an all-time classic game with 18 lead changes, stretches of great shots and a flurry of second-half momentum swings. Right after half-time, the Tar Heels seemed to wrest control of the game with a 13-0 raise triggered by a pair of huge three-pointers from Caleb Love. Duke then responded with six straight strikers, crowned by a low-post Banchero basket.

The game looked set to descend to final possession until Duke’s Mark Williams missed a couple of free throws with 46.7 seconds left. This gave Love the opening he needed to make a killing blow.

With North Carolina leading by one, Love curled up on a top-of-the-key screen and landed the favorable bout he wanted against 7-foot Williams. Feeling that Williams was giving him too much space, Love stopped and buried a triple atop the key, extending the Tar Heels lead to four with 24.8 seconds left.

As Duke kept trying to work a miracle, that shot nearly grabbed North Carolina’s spot in Monday’s national title game. Tar Heels now boast a title against Kansas and a double dose of rivalry to brag, ending Krzyzewski’s career at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a defeat last month and ending his last NCAA tournament with another.

“This was by far probably the craziest game any of us have ever played,” said North Carolina center Armando Bacot. “For us to be able to say we won that game and for our fans to have that right to brag forever, it’s fantastic.”

While the conclusion of a defeat in an NCAA tournament often leaves players numb or in tears, Duke’s exit was particularly emotional. This wasn’t just the end of a season. In many ways, it was the end of an era.

On March 18, 1980, Duke introduced a new men’s basketball coach who had just gone 9-17 in his fifth season in the Army. The Raleigh-Durham market was so unknown to Krzyzewski that local media made him write his last name on the lectern.

Forty-two years later, Krzyzewski retires as a coaching icon known worldwide from a single letter. Manager K has amassed more than 1,200 victories, conquered five national championships and forged a legacy of excellence, perseverance and challenge in the face of controversy.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 02: Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski speaks to the press while Paolo Banchero n.  5 and Trevor Keels No.  1 watch after losing to North Carolina Tar Heels 81-77 in 2022 NCAA Men's 39; s Basketball Tournament Final Four Semifinal at Caesars Superdome on April 02, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski speaks to the media as Paolo Banchero (center) and Trevor Keels look to defeat to North Carolina, 81-77, in the national semi-finals. (Photo by Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Krzyzewski said he chose to publicly declare his intention to retire months ago because he didn’t feel good knowing his future and not telling potential recruits. “I didn’t want to recruit a child in an unethical way, where you tell a child that he could play for you, and then you’ll pull the plug,” he said last week.

Yet the downside to revealing his plans upfront is that he instantly made every aspect of Duke’s season on him. His last meeting with Jim Boeheim. His last visit to Chapel Hill. His last home game. His latest ACC tournament. And now, really, his last cheers.

“We have been busy all season,” Banchero said. “It’s the coach’s last thing in every match.”

Duke bent under the weight of that weight a couple of times at the end of the season, but the Blue Devils delighted their manager with how they matured during the NCAA tournament. They overcame a five-point trailing in the final against the State of Michigan, made their last eight field goal attempts against Texas Tech’s fierce defense, and then overwhelmed Arkansas to send Krzyzewski to his record-breaking 13th Final Four.

And then two days before the first Monday evening in April, Krzyzewski’s last race staggered to a halt. The end came with tears and disappointment, but also with pride.

“I’ve said my whole career – or when I knew what the hell I was doing – that I wanted my seasons to end with my team crying tears of joy or tears of pain,” said Krzyzewski. “Because then you know that they have given everything. I had a locker room full of kids crying. And it was a beautiful show “.

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