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Graney: North Carolina tops Duke in an instant classic

NEW ORLEANS — It was early Saturday morning when a short but robust rainstorm hit this Louisiana city along the Mississippi River, a thunder roaring louder than any from the passionate gathering at the Caesars Superdome later that night.

Which took some major doing.

You can term it an instant classic, this national semifinal between North Carolina and Duke, this fantastic back-and-forth affair that delivered amid all the hype and then some.

North Carolina would prevail 81-77 before a thoroughly enterained 70,602, sending the Tar Heels into Monday night’s national championship game.

It is there they will meet Kansas, who handled Villanova 81-65 in the first Final Four game — a clear appetizer to an amazing main course.

“I want our guys to celebrate tonight,” said North Carolina coach Hubert Davis. “This is a special moment for our program, for our team. There will be plenty of time to get prepared for an unbelievable Kansas team. If you can’t be ready to play for a national championship, you shouldn’t be playing.”

What this also means is that the coaching career of Mike Krzyzewski is over, the Duke leader having fallen one game short in his final season of playing for a sixth championship.

It was Friday when Krzyzewksi went on a long rant about the NCAA and his impression of the disconnect between the national office and those it governs. He took more shots at NCAA president Mark Emmert than Duke did Saturday against the Tar Heels.

But that was a long-term view. Saturday was in the present.

It was One Shining Moment before One Shining Moment.

Tears of sorrow

“I’m not thinking about my career,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve always said that at the end of any season, I wanted my team crying tears of joy or sorrow. That way, you know they gave it everything. I’ve got a locker room full of guys crying. It’s a beautiful sight. It’s not the sight I would want. I’d want the other.

“But this game reached the level we all expected. Both teams played their hearts out. The winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony.”

This wasn’t just good for college basketball. It was great. One of sport’s best rivalries. Trading baskets all evening long. Huge shots on both sides. One after the other. An electric atmosphere for those here to witness and a nation watching.

Such games always produce memorable performances on both sides. Whether it was North Carolina guard Caleb Love scoring 28 and clinching things from the free-throw line in the final seconds or Duke freshman sensation Paolo Banchero finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Whether it was Tar Heels forward Armando Bacot going for 11 points and 21 boards or Duke freshman Trevor Keels adding 19 points.

“We’re one game away from winning the national championship,” said Love. “What more can you say?”

He’s done

So it’s over for Krzyzewski, 13 Final Fours and 101 career NCAA Tournament wins and five national championships later. Loved by the Duke faithful, loathed by fans of most all other teams.

A Hall of Famer whose career was defined by mountains of cheers and boos.

He’s done. There will be no last climb up a ladder. No final strand of net to snip away. No fairy tale ending.

“Any emotion I’ve shown is not because it’s my last season,” Krzyzewski said Friday. “If you’re being emotional for your last season, you’re really a selfish person — although there are people out there that think I am. In this respect, I’m not.

“I didn’t come back this season to have a storybook.”

It wasn’t in cards. The narrative wasn’t meant to be.

His team’s most bitter rival saw to that.

All it took was an instant classic. Lived up to the hype, is right. Delivered in every manner.

What a game — what a night — for college basketball.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.