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Looking Back: Mike Krzyzewski’s First Year At Duke, Part III

The best win of his first season was the last of the regular season. People still talk about it

Duke University Mike Krzyzewski
Coach K during practice
Set Number: X49411 TK1 R2 F36

Duke and North Carolina were fierce rivals long before Mike Krzyzewski first set eyes on Cameron Indoor Stadium. The 1979 Air Ball game, North Carolina’s epic 1974 comeback, Duke’s triple-overtime win in 1968, Duke’s 21-20 win in the 1966 ACC Tournament and the 1961 Art Heyman-Larry Brown fight are just a few of the memorable pre-1980 moments in the rivalry.

But it would be equally inaccurate to deny that Krzyzewski’s arrival elevated the rivalry. Or more accurately it was the fact that he stayed and competed with Dean Smith that elevated the rivalry. Gerry Gerard coached seven seasons at Duke, Harold Bradley eight, Vic Bubas 10, Bucky Waters four, Neil McGeachy one and Bill Foster six. That’s right. Mike Krzyzewski has coached longer at Duke than the combined tenures of the six men who preceded him. Krzyzewski’s first 17 seasons at Duke coincided with Dean Smith’s last 17 seasons at Carolina, an unprecedented overlap at the two schools, at least until Roy Williams came along.

There were and are other variables of course; ESPN, the internet, talk-radio all over the dial, all gave the rivalry exposure unimaginable to Bubas or Frank McGuire.

But every rivalry needs great games and few have been greater than February 28, 1981.

Duke hadn’t been able to follow up that Maryland win with any sustained success. In fact, Duke lost three of their next four games, by margins of six, one and two points.

Duke was 14-11.

The Tar Heels were 22-6 and ranked 11th nationally. They were led by senior wing Al Wood, sophomore forward James Worthy and freshman center Sam Perkins. Worthy would miss the game in Cameron with an injury, a big loss for the visitors.

It was Senior Day for Banks, Dennard, Suddath and Linney and Banks won the pregame when he distributed roses to the Crazies before the game.

The dramatic final few minutes have tended to overshadow the first 39 minutes. But it was one of these games where every possession was precious. There were 19 lead changes in the game.

Sam Perkins was the 1981 ACC Freshman of the Year and he took up much of the slack created by Worthy’s absence. Wood was a spectacular shooter not known for his defense but Smith put him on Banks and Wood helped hold Banks to five first-half points.

JImmy Black was Carolina’s point guard. Usually a pass-first player, he responded to Worthy’s absence by aggressively hunting and hitting shots.

Carolina led 29-28 at intermission, a Tissaw tip-in cutting Duke’s deficit to a point.

Banks heated up after intermission, using his strength and leaping ability to abuse Wood in the lane. Dennard had one of the best games of the season. But Carolina held for a final shot in a tie game and Perkins was fouled.

The freshman calmly netted both foul shots and Carolina led 58-56, with two seconds showing on the clock.

Duke only had one time-out and 94 feet to negotiate.

But Smith threw Duke a lifeline. He used one of his time-outs to set up his defense.

“I was happy when they called that timeout,” Krzyzewski said following the game. “We only had one left and we would have had to call it then.”

Dennard in-bounded to Engelland and Duke quickly used that timeout to set up that final play.

One second left.

Banks wasn’t actually the primary target. Engelland was. But Banks was having none of it. When Duke broke its huddle, Banks turned to Dennard and said simply “get me the ball.”

Dennard was called on to make that final pass and he cleverly moved up about 10 feet closer to mid-court. The officials let him. He found Banks about 17 feet from the basket, where he hit a spinning jumper over Sam Perkins’ incredibly long, outstretched arms.

“I looked at Gene and they all went there, so I ball-faked to Chip,” Dennard told the press. “Carolina really goes for those ball fakes. They all just shifted over to him and left Gene with a little room. I tossed it so he had to turn, so he could be moving towards the basket when he got the ball.”

Banks’ take?

“Sam’s challenging the shot helped with my arc. If he hadn’t been there, it might have been different. But I felt as soon as I released it, it was going in.”

Pandemonium ensued. But Banks’ miracle buzzer-beater didn’t win the game, it only tied it, 58-58. Duke would need five more minutes to seal the deal.

Carolina won the toss and went into their four corners offense. Jimmy Black wasn’t Phil Ford but he was pretty effective. The Tar Heels burned almost two minutes before Black was fouled. He made the first end of the bonus but missed the second.

The teams exchanged one-point leads. Dennard fouled out Perkins, leaving Carolina shy of rim protection and rebounding in those final seconds.

Duke had the ball down by a point. Taylor missed a jumper but Banks converted the follow shot. It was the last of Bank’s six points in overtime. And it was the real game winner.

Carolina had 18 seconds left. Dean Smith was famous—or infamous—for always having a spare timeout or two in his back pocket. But not this time. Carolina couldn’t stop the clock. Both teams had to wing it. Duke smothered Wood, leaving Mike Pepper to jack up a 22-footer. It missed and time ran out.

Duke 66, North Carolina 65. Final.

“I thought it was a gutsy effort by our group of men,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a very emotional game—it couldn’t have been a more fitting ending for our seniors. A lot of their guys played pretty good games but I’ll tell you, this was Gene’s afternoon.”

“Even Shakespeare could not have written a better ending,” Banks summed up. “He would have been in awe.”

Banks led everyone with 25 points, 20 after that five-point first half. He led Duke with 7 rebounds. Dennard hit 8 of 13 from the field for 16 points, while Taylor had 14 points and 4 assists.

Duke’s big three accounted for 55 of their 66 points.

Perkins (24), Wood (16) and Black (12) led Carolina in scoring. Perkins had 8 rebounds, Black 7 assists.

Carolina got Worthy back, won the ACC Tournament and advanced all the way to the NCAA title game, where they lost to Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers.

Ironically, this actually wasn’t the Duke seniors’ final home game. After a close loss to Maryland in the ACC Tournament, Duke accepted a bid to the NIT. Duke hosted North Carolina A&T in the opener. Banks broke a wrist early in that game and was out for the tournament. Dennard responded with the best basketball of his career, leading Duke to a 79-69 win over A&T and a 75-70 win over Alabama, also in Cameron. Duke then went on the road and Krzyzewski’s first season ended with an 81-69 loss to Purdue, the same team that ended Duke’s 1980 season.

Then Banks and Dennard went off to the NBA. Krzyzewski told Feinstein in that ACC Basketball Handbook article that “I know we have to go out and have a great recruiting year. Not a good one, a great one.”

Krzyzewski did have that great year, only a year later than planned. Canadian forward Dan Meagher was the only consequential recruit from his first full class and he was a complementary player. Krzyzewski soon started getting classes with players like Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Tommy Amaker. But those wins over Clemson, Maryland and North Carolina in his maiden season in the ACC demonstrated that Mike Krzyzewski had the coaching chops to beat talented teams if he had comparable talent. Once that talent started flowing into Durham, Krzyzewski started fulfilling that promise.

We know the rest.