DURHAM, N.C. — It was intended to be a celebration, the curtain call at Cameron, the end of an era for the GOAT of college basketball. There were nearly 100 of his former players who flew in from all over the country to pay homage. NBA commissioner Adam Silver sat next to Jerry Seinfeld; actor Ken Jeong was courtside as tickets were being sold for astronomical prices never seen before in the sport.
The game was supposed to be an afterthought, though, a complete footnote to a night that had been circled on everyone’s calendar from the day the news broke in early June that Mike Krzyzewski was calling it a career after this season. The only question was not whether Duke would win, but by how many points the Blue Devils would crush their rivals on this historic night.
Duke had already wrapped up its first outright ACC regular-season title since 2006 and was playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina? The Tar Heels had been mediocre this season, and that’s being kind. They came into the game on the right side of the bubble, but not by much.
And then, the unthinkable happened.
North Carolina proceeded to spoil Coach K Night, delivering Mike Krzyzewski just his 76th home loss in 42 seasons on the final night he’ll ever roam the sidelines at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I’m sorry,” Coach K said after he and his team re-emerged from the locker room about 15 minutes after the final buzzer sounded. “That was unacceptable.”
Coach K after the game: “I’m sorry. That was unacceptable.” pic.twitter.com/F8gMfRGu0w
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) March 6, 2022
“Disappointing,” Blue Devils star Paolo Banchero said. “That was a game we had to win for coach, and we didn’t. I feel like we let him down.”
Coach K admitted that it was a taxing, emotional week with all the talk centered on his final home game at Cameron instead of the game itself. ESPN’s College GameDay came to town, the national media also arrived in full force for his weekly Thursday news conference, and then the Cameron Crazies invaded Krzyzewskiville on Saturday.
With 15 minutes on the clock prior to the start of the game, all of the former players in attendance – including Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Jay Williams, J.J. Redick, Danny Ferry and Shane Battier – walked out of the tunnel and formed two lines through which Krzyzewski walked to get onto the court. Coach K took a group photo and then appeared to be overcome with emotion, even fighting back tears during the national anthem.
“It has been emotional,” Coach K admitted about this week. “It’s good to be emotional, especially about good things. If you’re crying because of joy, you’re a lucky person.”
But while it appeared to be little more than a formality for K to win his 1,197th career game, no one informed the Tar Heels trio of RJ Davis, Brady Manek and Armando Bacot, who combined for 64 points and 23 rebounds in the 94-81 victory.
When the final buzzer sounded, Cameron fell silent as the Tar Heels celebrated a resounding victory on Coach K Court.
“They played a lot better than we did today,” K said.
“It was a Herculean challenge because of the emotion and the build-up,” former player and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “It was a lot to ask.”
Coach K sat stonefaced, appearing almost in disbelief as the clock ran out and Caleb Love taunted the Cameron Crazies. He then went into the locker room, told his players he was disappointed in their effort, and then re-emerged holding the hand of his wife, Mickie. He was surrounded by his three daughters and 10 grandchildren and once again spoke to the capacity crowd of 9,314.
This loss will be remembered, though just a blip on the most celebrated career in college basketball history. K will leave as the all-time winningest coach in D-1 men’s college basketball history. He’s been to a dozen Final Fours, has won five national titles and is hoping to add a sixth.
After apologizing to the crowd for the performance, he said, “The season isn’t over.”
Sure, this was embarrassing. Coach K should have been celebrating with his former players following a win and not a loss. But he also understands the bigger picture here, and he’d gladly trade this loss for a sixth national championship.
“For the former players, it doesn’t take away from the fact that we got to be here all together supporting our coach,” Wojciechowski said. “The game was the game, but we were here for him. There’s still a lot to celebrate.”
And K wanted to make certain one thing wasn’t forgotten.
“It’s not my last game,” he said. “It’s my last game at Cameron.”