Mike Krzyzewski gingerly makes his way down the tall ladder, most of the net clenched in his left hand. There are two little knots of white net left up there that Duke's emperor could not snip down though.
So Krzyzewski tells a lackey to go up on the ladder and get them for him. Coach K wants every bit of his memories. And he's used to having other people do things for him.
Like referees. And spooked foes.
Make no mistake, these are the factors that truly power Duke into another Final Four in the most unsatisfying of the otherwise classic Regional Final games. For the second straight game in Houston, the Blue Devils get an unbelievable gift from the officials and use it to fend off a game opponent. This time it's two quick questionable foul calls on Gonzaga's indispensable big man Przemek Karnowski and a 66-52 win.
This the game after an absolutely atrocious third foul whistled on Utah's NBA level guard Delon Wright with five minutes left in the first half completely changed the South Regional semifinal. No wonder why even Christian Laettner thinks Duke gets crazy calls.
There are pro wrestling matches that seem less predetermined than Duke Final Four berths. It's good to be college basketball's Apple.
"To be honest with you, it was the two fouls early," Gonzaga coach Mark Few says when someone asks what negated Karnowski. "We had to sit him early and I thought that was a big factor."
The referees are almost always a major factor in Duke's favor. When will enough be enough? When will officials stop seemingly genuflecting to Krzyzewski and Duke's reputation?
In the end, the real losers are college basketball fans everywhere — particularly the 20,744 in the curtained off NRG Stadium who come hoping to finally get the classic game Houston so sorely deserves. Even George H.W. Bush and Barbra Bush show, giving this Regional that pure Houston seal of approval. Dallas Cowboys quarterback (and Duke honk) Tony Romo does too — and gets righteously booed.
This game could have been a classic. Instead it's a coronation. With Coach K gliding to his 12th Final Four.
Thanks to a faulty whistle. The third foul on Karnowski is even more absurd — with Duke forward Justise Winslow crashing into him when Karnowski is just standing there, arms straight up in the air.
For whatever reason, referees suddenly get awfully deferential around the storied, always-screaming-for-calls Coach K.
There are professional wrestling matches that seem less predetermined than Duke Final Four berths. It's good to be college basketball's version of Apple.
Gonzaga's Blown Layup
Even with the Karnowski killing calls, Gonzaga roars back again and again. With five minutes remaining, they're within 53-51. Then, Gonzaga remembers it's playing Duke and chokes like Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot.
There is no other way to put what transpires. The Zags are outscored 13-1 the rest of the way. And it starts with their best player Kyle Wiltjer just blowing one of the most wide open layups in the history of the game.
It comes off a great Karnowski pass. There is not a Blue Devil anywhere near Wiltjer. And yet, he still somehow completely overshoots the bunny.
"He would make that thing 499 times out of 500," Few says afterwards, still looking like he's being sucker punched talking about the play. "Just a fluke. There's nobody on the team we'd rather have taking it than him.
"He's got such a beautiful touch with the ball around the rim."
"I was surprised. I didn't realize how open he was. Karnowski made a hell of a pass. We're lucky he blew it."
Except when he's staring down Duke with the chance to push Gonzaga to its first Final Four ever. Wiltjer's miss is so bad that Adam Morrison probably broke into full-on weeping all over again.
The blown layup's so unfathomable that it cannot help but suck the fight right out of the Zags.
"I was surprised," Duke center Jahlil Okafor says. "I didn't realize how open he was. Karnowski made a hell of a pass.
"We're lucky he blew it."
Wiltjer blows it and the Zags are blown away down the stretch.
"We didn't make the Final Four and we're really down on ourselves right now," Wiltjer says.
Gonzaga should be feeling the pain. They let a wobbly Duke off the mat. The Blue Devils misfire on 13 of 15 shots to end the first half. They're ripe for a toppling.
Just imagine how shaky Krzyzewski's team would be if Karnowski is allowed to log major minutes (the fouls limit him to 24, fewest of the Gonzaga starters). College basketball fans are robbed of the chance to see the hulking Polish Punisher get into a true one-on-one battle with Okafor, the likely No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA Draft.
This game could have been a classic. Instead it's a coronation.
When Karnowski is on the floor, he gives Okafor everything he wants — and then some. The Blue Devil big man with all the moves finishes with only nine points on 10 shots.
"The officials were good," Okafor says. "They definitely let us play."
Correction, they let one of the teams play. Gonzaga has the misfortune of not being Duke. Of not being referee blessed.
Nothing new to see here. In fact, if you think about it, it's a rather fitting way for the bullying Krzyzewski to tie the peerless, classy innovator John Wooden for the most Final Fours ever.
Coach K's long benefited from a little extra, friendly help.
There are good stories on this Duke team. Often-forgotten sophomore guard Matt Jones hits four crucial 3-pointers. Winslow, the St. John's School star, comes home to Houston and follows up his dominant Friday night by scoring seven straight points after that blown Gonzaga layup, including a pull-up, pure dagger three with 2:48 left.
On this Sunday, Winslow leaves those crazy celebrations that showed such Duke uncharacteristic real joy behind though. It turns out control freak Krzyzewski talked to him about that.
"I'm happy we won, but at the same time, we've got two more," Winslow says at his locker. "The road's not done. We got four. We need six."
Even Justise Winslow is becoming a Duke robot? It's the way of the Devil.
Act fake, get all the calls and take a gilded path to the Final Four. Nothing new here. True competitive college basketball is just the big loser. Again.