DURHAM, NC — Playing the ultimate villain, North Carolina stunned archrival Duke in arguably the most hyped-up game in the Tobacco Road rivalry.
The Tar Heels upset the Blue Devils 94-81 Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium on a day that was dominated by the pageantry of Mike Krzyzewski coaching the final home game of his 42-season career.
Instead of a victorious coronation for the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history, it was a court-storming affair for a gritty and determined UNC team that was on the NCAA tournament bubble entering the day.
Krzyzewski was disappointed when he returned to the court for a ceremony celebrating his career.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon. Today was unacceptable,” he said. “But the season has been very acceptable. The season isn’t over.”
North Carolina played the aggressor all night and showed major mettle late in the second half by pushing away from a Blue Devils squad that was in line to garner an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed beforehand. It was a much different scene than a month earlier when Duke jumped out to a 20-point first-half lead to put the Tar Heels away early.
“They played better than us,” Krzyzewski told reporters after the game. “Their program is based on pride like ours. They played a solid 40 minutes against us. They’re a really good team. …In the second half, our defense was horrible.
The Blue Devils (26-5, 16-4 ACC) started off sluggish – trailing throughout key spurts late in the second half and were never able to hit their stride. After Duke still looked in control, the Tar Heels (23-8, 15-5 ACC) first took a momentous 68-63 lead with 7:37 remaining that quieted the crowd. That shifted the momentum to North Carolina’s favor, and then the ‘Heels struck harder by building an double-digit cushion late in the game – a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
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It was an overall off night for this young Duke squad, and it’s unclear how much of that was due to the emotion and pressure of the big occasion. Much of it had to do with the Tar Heels playing with a purpose, perhaps their best basketball of the season.
“I was worried about a few things going into the game,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s kind of like a celebration of me, which I don’t like that. Basically we’re living in a penthouse the last few days. With room service and everyone saying nice things. We didn’t play hungry today. I understand how this could happen. Carolina could’ve helped us by not being that good. Our ship was gonna sink today no matter what.”
UNC big man Armando Bacot was the primary enforcer, finishing with 23 points. Four Tar Heels players scored over 20 points, with Caleb Love (22), RJ Davis (21) and Brady Manek (20) all making big shots throughout the night. Freshman standout Paolo Banchero, who started hot early, led the Blue Devils with 23 points in the loss but shot 11-for-26 from the floor.
“Just disappointed,” Banchero told reporters afterwards. “We wanted to win for Coach K.”
At one juncture in the first half, an animated Krzyzewski was seen laying into a referee for what he believed was a missed call. Krzyzewski tracked down the official at halftime to express his frustration with him. That was the kind of head-scratching night it was before a boisterous crowd that ultimately was quieted.
Prior to the game, a powerful scene of 96 former Duke players – including all-time greats Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, JJ Redick and Elton Brand – were in attendance to honor the 75-year-old coach, who did his best to contain the rich emotion attached to a legacy that’s included five national titles as the winningest coach in the history of the sport. Krzyzewski was noticeably teary-eyed during the national anthem but kept his composure from him.
Duke’s loss greatly hurts its chances at garnering a No. 1 seed in March Madness. The ACC has been weaker this year – ranking as the sixth worst conference in NET rankings – with only Duke and projected No. 9 seed Notre Dame locks to go dancing. But the Blue Devils’ résumé, which includes wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, is good enough for a No. 2 seed.
North Carolina, meanwhile, is a bubble team that got the exact Quadrant 1 (top-25 home, top-75 road) win it needed on its NCAA tournament profile. Now the Tar Heels are much better positioned to hear their name called on Selection Sunday heading into the ACC tournament where winning can only enhance their profile further.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.