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Mike Krzyzewski's final ride: Coach K finds beauty in tearful heartbreak of losing to hated Heels in Final Four

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NEW ORLEANS — At the end of his last ride came a long walk.

Beaten by his archrival, felled by a dagger of a 3-pointer in the final minute, Mike Krzyzewski unfolded his arms, got up off his courtside stool and strode calmly into retirement.

He displayed no emotion when he shook the hand of North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis. Nor when Duke fans in the stands applauded reverentially and shouted “We love you, coach!” as he exited the floor.

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

For months, Duke has strived to give Krzyzewski the ultimate retirement gift, to let him leave men's college basketball with a sixth national title. “That’s been the motivation since the beginning,” freshman Paolo Banchero explained last week. “To send him out on top.”

On Saturday night, when an 81-77 loss to North Carolina brought Krzyzewski’s farewell tour to a thrilling and sudden close, the Blue Devils were heartbroken they had fallen two wins shy of that goal. That it came against the hated Tar Heels, the same team that stunned Duke in Krzyzewski’s final home game last month, only made the outcome more excruciating.

Apr 2, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski and guard Jeremy Roach (3) leave the court after a loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2022 NCAA men's basketball tournament Final Four semifinals at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 2, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski and guard Jeremy Roach (3) leave the court after a loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2022 NCAA men's basketball tournament Final Four semifinals at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Krzyzewski was one of the only Duke players or coaches to retreat to the solitude of the postgame locker room dry-eyed and he was also one of the only ones to leave that way. To him, before he could grieve the end of his remarkable coaching career, he first 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 concerned about these guys.

“I don't want any of these guys to leave and say, I should have made that one free throw. We win and we lose together. We've won 32 games and two championships together. And that's what I want them to realize.”

From the moment that Duke and North Carolina set up this unprecedented Final Four showdown, Saturday night’s game was always going to end with tears on one side and a wild celebration on the other. The first NCAA tournament matchup between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels pitted two rivals who had met 257 previous times but never with stakes like this.

The 70,602 fans who packed the Superdome delivered 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 game began and the full-throated roars for every basket were the kind typically reserved for the final two minutes.

Duke and North Carolina helped by delivering an all-time classic game featuring 18 lead changes, stretches of fantastic shot-making and a flurry of second-half momentum swings. Just after halftime, the Tar Heels seemed to wrest away control of the game with a 13-0 surge sparked by a pair of massive Caleb Love 3-pointers. Duke then answered back with six straight points of its own, capped by a Banchero low-post basket.

The game appeared destined to come down to the final possession until Duke’s Mark Williams missed a pair of free throws with 46.7 seconds to go. That gave Love the opening he needed to go for a kill shot.

With North Carolina leading by one, Love curled around a top-of-the-key screen and got the favorable matchup he wanted against the 7-foot-1 Williams. Sensing that Williams was giving him too much space, Love pulled up and buried a top-of-the-key 3-pointer, extending the Tar Heels’ lead to four with 24.8 seconds to go.

While Duke kept trying to pull off a miracle, that shot all but clinched North Carolina's spot in Monday's national title game. The Tar Heels now boast a title shot against Kansas and a double dose of rivalry bragging rights, ending Krzyzewski’s career at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a loss last month and ending his final NCAA tournament with another one.

“This was by far probably the craziest game that any of us will ever play in,” North Carolina center Armando Bacot said. “For us to be able to say we won that game and for our fans to have that bragging rights forever, it feels great."

While the finality of an NCAA tournament loss often leaves players numb or in tears, Duke’s exit was especially fraught with emotion. 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 at Army. The Raleigh-Durham market was so unfamiliar with Krzyzewski that the local media famously had him spell out his last name from the lectern.

Forty-two years later, Krzyzewski retires as a coaching icon known around the world by a single letter. Coach K has amassed more than 1,200 victories, captured five national championships and forged a legacy of excellence, perseverance and defiance in the face of controversy.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 02: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils talks to the press as Paolo Banchero #5 and Trevor Keels #1 look on after losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels 81-77 in the 2022 NCAA Men'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 talks to media as Paolo Banchero (middle) and Trevor Keels look on after losing to North Carolina, 81-77, in the national semifinals. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Krzyzewski has said he chose to publicly declare his intent to retire months ago because he didn’t feel right knowing his future and not telling potential recruits. “I didn’t want to recruit a kid in an unethical manner, where you’re telling a kid that he might play for you, and then you’re going to pull the plug,’’ he said last week.

And yet the downside of revealing his plans ahead of time is that it instantly made every aspect of Duke’s season about him. His last matchup with Jim Boeheim. His last visit to Chapel Hill. His last home game. His last ACC tournament. And now, truly, his last hurrah.

“All season we've been dealing with it,” Banchero said. “It's Coach's last something every game.”

Duke buckled under the weight of that burden a couple times late in the season, but the Blue Devils delighted their coach with how they matured during the NCAA tournament. They overcame a late five-point deficit against Michigan State, made their final eight field-goal attempts against Texas Tech’s ferocious defense and then overwhelmed Arkansas to send Krzyzewski to his record-setting 13th Final Four.

And then two days shy of the first Monday night in April, Krzyzewski’s last ride lurched to a halt. The end came with tears and disappointment but also with pride.

“I’ve said my entire career — or when I knew what the hell I was doing — that I wanted my seasons to end with my team either crying tears of joy or tears of sorrow,” Krzyzewski said. “Because then you know that they gave everything. I had a locker room filled with guys who were crying. And it was a beautiful sight.”