Basketball Armageddon became Duke’s nightmare Saturday night.
Duke fell to archrival North Carolina in the most high-stakes matchup in the rivalry’s history. The loss would be painful enough, but the Blue Devils and their fans are left pondering a myriad of “what-if’s” that could’ve changed the game’s outcome. What if Mark Williams avoided foul trouble? What if Duke had extended its late first half lead, rather than surrender a Tar Heel run? What if Duke didn’t uncharacteristically struggle at the free throw line down the stretch? What if Duke had shot closer to it’s average from deep, or Brady Manek and company didn’t hit so many seemingly well-defended threes in the second half?
Those questions will haunt Duke fans for years, and likely be how this team is remembered.
And that’s a shame.
North Carolina’s underdog story will rightfully be the headline in the history books given their victory. Yet, Duke’s own comeback story seems to have already been forgotten. This Blue Devil team was left for dead after the Tar Heels ruined Coach K’s Cameron farewell, and again after a double digit loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament. Virtually no one predicted a Final Four run for a team that was perceived as soft and unable to deal with pressure situations. Heck, Duke was a trendy pick to not even make the Sweet 16. Yet, these young Blue Devils did rise to the occasion on their way to New Orleans, buoyed by the surprising emergence of Jeremy Roach and the continued evolution of the uniquely-talented Paolo Banchero.
All that will be a footnote now, and understandably so. Duke had a chance to write it’s own ending, holding a one point lead over the Tar Heels with under 90 seconds to play. That the Blue Devils did so despite their worst offensive performance of the tournament and Williams’ foul trouble underlies what could have been: even without its A game, this Duke team was a few bounces away from Monday night’s National Championship game.
Instead, North Carolina will hold the ultimate trump card in the rivalry for the foreseeable future. Duke fans will have to grin and bear jeers from Tar Heel fans about ruining Coach K’s farewell and ending his career. And unless fate has a sense of humor, it may be years before these programs meet in the NCAA Tournament again to give Duke a chance at some semblance of redemption.
But rivalries are a fickle thing. Any hot take that the rivalry is “over” is laughable; if anything, fuel was poured onto the fire as it heads into a new chapter. Tar Heel fans may always be able to point to this historic result, but its impact will fade over time. Auburn fans will always have the “kick six” victory over Alabama, but multiple National Championships and definitive victories over the rival Tigers in the eight years since have certainly dulled that ache. Meanwhile, Michigan fans were jubilant following this season’s victory over Ohio State, with that one result quickly overshadowing a historic period of futility against the rival Buckeyes. Sports will always be a “what have you done for me lately” business, regardless of what the hype-machine for Basketball Armageddon has led us to believe.
As Duke fans, the best way to show our final appreciation for Coach K might be to follow his lead, and not that of the talking heads. In his postgame press conference, the winningest Coach in the sports history didn’t bemoan the bounces that didn’t go his team’s way, or the game’s historic nature. Instead, he heaped praise upon his players and their journey. “I am proud of what my guys have done,” Krzyzewski said. “They have been an amazing group for me. We had our chances and they made a couple more plays than we did. Our guys played their hearts out.”
So, as difficult as it might be, Duke fans can hold two distinct emotions in their minds today. They can grieve the heartbreaking twist ending to Coach K’s career and the frustration of losing a historic contest to a hated rival. But they can also celebrate Coach K’s amazing career, one that ended with one last run to the Final Four with a team that very few predicted could do so. They can also celebrate the journey of this team of young men, who followed their coach’s lead rather than listening to the talking heads who left them for dead.
Had fate not been so cruel, and the road ended last night against any team but North Carolina, the journey would be what made the history books. Instead, it will be the ending. So while grieving that ending now, remember to celebrate the journey down the road. Because if Duke fans don’t, no one will, and that disservice to this wonderful group of young men would be the last thing Coach K would want.