Hoops ‘Armageddon’ Is Coming And Duke, North Carolina Fans Are Scrounging To Be There

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The fiercest rivals in college basketball meet in the NCAA tournament for the first time, Duke’s legendary Mike Krzyzewski will be coaching his last games, and carloads of diehards are moving heaven and earth for tickets.


Julia love was a duke undergrad in 1980 when she watched from the stands as Mike Krzyzewski coached his first game for the Blue Devils. She’s determined to do whatever she can to be there in New Orleans for the Final Four this weekend for his last game, too.

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That Coach K’s farewell could come in Saturday’s semifinal against his bitterest rivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels, whose Chapel Hill campus is just eight miles from Duke’s in Durham, adds excruciating drama to the contest. Cue the Wagner.

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“The risk of losing to them adds to the anxiety,” Love, Duke ’83, who still lives in Durham, told Forbes, “The cost to listen to them would just be so horrible. But the reward of beating them will be so sweet.”

The basketball gods have smiled upon this year’s March Madness, first with the historic three-game win streak of the Saint Peter’s Peacocks of Jersey City, the only 15-seed to make it to the elite eight before losing, and now with the matchup that nobody would believe had it been fiction. Duke’s coach — he spells it Krzyzewski, pronounces it shi-SHEV-skee and mostly goes by Coach K — has decided to retire after 42 years at the school, a record 1,202 total wins, 15 conference championships and five NCAA tournament titles. The team standing in the way of his competing on Monday night for an epic sixth, against the winner of the other, ho-hum-by-comparison Kansas-Villanova semifinal, is the team that has beaten him and his Blue Devils more than any other, the underdog Tar Heels, led by rookie coach Hubert Davis. Amazingly, this will be the first-ever clash in the NCAA tournament between the two teams whose mutual loathing, bred by proximity and shared basketball success, has flowed unabated for a century.

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“All the oxygen in the state is being devoted to this game,” says Jim Sumner, author, longtime historian of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and Duke ’72. “It’s a bunch of 18- to 21-year-olds playing a kids’ game, but we’ve built it up to this enormous Armageddon of good versus evil.”


Fans who want to be among the 78,000 witnessing the (hopefully figurative) end of the world in the Caesars Superdome are finding it isn’t a slam dunk. New Orleans has a small airport — the 38th-busiest in the US by number of passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration — and airfare for the weekend makes Mardi Gras price hikes seem restrained. There are no regular nonstop flights between Raleigh-Durham and New Orleans, but Delta added one special $2,000 round trip for the occasion. The flights depart on Friday, return on Tuesday after the championship game, and sold out within a day. Forbes found one Duke fan searching for weekend flights from Washington but finding only a $2,200 ticket on Spirit Air with a layover in Cleveland.

Instead of flying, Love and her husband are loading up the car for the 850-mile, 12-hour road trip, picking up her husband’s cousins ​​along the way in Mobile, Alabama, and splitting an Airbnb in New Orleans. On Tuesday, she got the text she was hoping for to complete her itinerary: A friend with the Iron Dukes, Duke’s athletics booster club whose members get first dibs on a limited allocation of tickets through the school, came through with game seats.


Dukies are adapted to going to great lengths for tickets. Their home court, Cameron Indoor Stadium, has a capacity of just 9,314 and every year undergraduates camp out in tents for several weeks on a field, dubbed Krzyzewskiville, to get their free student passes for the game against North Carolina.

As of Wednesday night, the cheapest ticket for the semifinals on StubHub, including fees, was $360 for a seat in the upper deck of the Superdome, the home of the New Orleans Saints football team. From that rarefied location, the hoops players look like insects that can be crushed between two fingers. Seats in sections closest to the court are going for at least $2,500. Every ticket is good for both games of Saturday’s single-admission doubleheader, so Kansas and Villanova fans are also competing for seats.

The NCAA sets up student sections for each school, and both Duke and North Carolina held a lottery for $40 student tickets. Thousands entered on Monday for a chance at one of the 700 tickets allocated for each school. Jack Collins, a junior history and political science major and co-chair of UNC’s Carolina Fever student fan organization, was one of the lucky ones. He says he’ll drive with friends to an Airbnb in Biloxi, Mississippi, that can house 27 people for about $800 per night. The Tar Heels have a successful history in the Superdome, winning their 1982 and 1993 championships there under their legendary coach, the late Dean Smith, and Collins’ group will make the 90-mile drive from their base in Biloxi hoping it happens again.

“Going to New Orleans where Dean won his two national championships, we’re excited about that possibility,” says Collins, UNC ’23, a fourth-generation Tar Heel. “I think we’ve probably had the two biggest games ever in the rivalry this year, in K’s final game at Cameron and now this.”

O the game at Cameron! O Blue Devils! O humanity! What a wound Coach K’s last home game ripped in the hearts of Duke fans. The March 5 contest against North Carolina at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium was supposed to be a cakewalk of a swansong for the 75-year-old coach. Tickets sold for a minimum of $3,000. About 100 of Krzyzewski’s former players gathered for a group photo before the game. Pride, however, comes before a fall. The basketball gods took their revenge, and the unranked Tar Heels made a mess of his goodbye, winning 94-81. After the game, Krzyzewski snarled into a microphone that the outcome was “unacceptable” and shushed fans who tried to lift his spirits. His postgame send-off ceremony was, to put it generously, awkward.

The Blue Devils’ mortifying defeat — to the Tar Heels! — further ratchets up the tension for Saturday’s game. No. 2 seed Duke, with a roster chock full of high school All-Americans and NBA prospects, is a slight favorite to get revenge on the eighth-seeded Tar Heels among bettors. It will be Krzyzewski’s 98th time coaching Duke against North Carolina, and the two programs have been remarkably evenly matched during that span. Coach K is 50-47 against the Tar Heels, both schools have won five national championships since Krzyzewski arrived in Durham in 1980—a number unmatched by anyone else—and this is North Carolina’s 14th Final Four berth under four different coaches in that time span , compared with Coach K’s 13.


The schools both made the same Final Four only once before, in 1991 in Indianapolis, but they played in separate semifinals. There wasn’t much talk in the week leading up to the tournament finale that they would meet in the championship game. Duke first had to face the undefeated University of Nevada-Las Vegas, which had embarrassed the Blue Devils by 30 points in the championship the year before. Duke wound up beating the Runnin’ Rebels for one of the most memorable wins of Krzyzewski’s career, but not before Kansas had already beaten the Tar Heels in the first semifinal. Since then, when it came to the tournament, the schools were like ghost ships passing in the night.

“The assumption was that Carolina’s going to beat Kansas, but no way Duke gets past UNLV, so of course the exact opposite happened,” Sumner says. “Other times, they could’ve met and it just didn’t work out. It’s kind of weird that the one time that they do meet, it would not have seemed logical when the tournament started.”

Most prognosticators didn’t give North Carolina much of a chance to survive this far when tournament play began. So much for most prognosticators. The Heels upset No. 1-seed Baylor and UCLA — then taught the upstart Saint Peter’s a lesson — to force basketball Armageddon. Most folks didn’t expect Duke to make it this far either, but the Blue Devils came from behind to win thrillers against Michigan State and Texas Tech, with Coach K single-digit minutes from retirement in both games. The Devils then crushed Arkansas, which had cleared the tournament favorite Gonzaga out of Duke’s way in a major upset two days earlier.


Now comes the main event, so filled to bursting with anticipation that Mike Greenberg, ESPN’s ubiquitous hyperbolist, told radio listeners on Monday that he couldn’t think of a bigger game any college teams have ever played.

Collins and his UNC classmates are excited to see their school face Duke again. They’re already thrilled about the improbable run under Davis, their first-year head coach who has won 1,174 fewer games than Coach K. For Duke fans, outnumbered in North Carolina, a loss to end Krzyzewski’s career before having a shot at grasping the golden ring one more time would be tough to bear. Most would rather be playing any other school.

“Losing the game might hurt a lot more than winning the game would feel good, particularly from a Duke perspective, because most Duke fans are surrounded by Carolina fans,” Sumner says. “Carolina maybe has less to lose. They’re playing with house money.”

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