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North Carolina Tar Heels advance to Men’s National Basketball Finals, end legendary career of Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski

NEW ORLEANS — On the first day of practice last summer, Hubert Davis put a picture of the Superdome in North Carolina’s locker room. He told his players to tell their parents to book hotels and flights to New Orleans.

Davis was confident the Tar Heels were good enough to reach the Final Four in his first year as head coach.

An expectation that seemed unrealistic at the time and pure fantasy three weeks ago now seems prophetic. North Carolina defeated Duke 81-77 in an all-time classic on Saturday night and will face Kansas in Monday’s national championship game.

“All year, we were convinced that we could get to this,” said junior center Armando Bacot. “I don’t know if it was a belief or if it was just that we were delusional. I mean, every moment of the season we knew that if we got together as a team, we could get into the championship. And That’s what we did .”

Given the historic ramifications of the NCAA Tournament opener in the sport’s biggest rivalry – a berth in the title game on the line and potentially Mike Krzyzewski’s final game – it was always going to be hard to match the incredible buzz. pre-game leading up to the contest. But as the Duke-Carolina rivalry tends to do, she answered the bell.

The arena was filled with extraordinary energy in the minutes leading up to the denunciation and the crowd of 70,602 did not relax for the next two hours.

“I think he’s reached a level that you would expect,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, the crowd was on their feet for most of the game, I think. It was a hell of a game.”

Coming out of the final media timeout with 3:32 remaining in the game, Davis took off his glasses to clean them and let out a slight smirk at no one in particular. He may have been thinking what everyone in the Superdome was thinking: college basketball doesn’t get much better than this.

Duke. North Carolina. 67-67. Place in the championship game on the line.

The drama only escalated from there. Trevor Keels, who finished with 19 points, hit a 3 with 2:07 left to give Duke a one-point lead, followed by Brady Manek hitting one on the next possession – and Wendell Moore responding with a 3 of his own with 1:20 remaining.

RJ Davis, who carried Carolina in the first half with 14 points, was fouled on ensuing possession, hitting both free throws to give Carolina a one-point lead.

One of the two teams would have to make the first mistake in the last minute, and on Saturday night the Blue Devils blinked first. Mark Williams missed two free throws on the next possession with 46 seconds left, and Caleb Love went down and hit a 3 to give the Tar Heels a four-point lead with 25 seconds left. Love would freeze the game for the Tar Heels in the final seconds with free throws.

“Coach puts the ball in RJ’s or me’s hand and tells us to make a play,” Love said. “RJ and I have done it all season. Whoever has the ball, we both made great players and it just happened to be in my hands, so I made the play. And we walked out winners.”

Krzyzewski’s career officially ends one step away from the biggest sports scene. He finished his career with five National Championships, 13 Final Four appearances and nine appearances in the National Championship Game.

Carolina made sure he wouldn’t be in a 10th title match on Saturday night.

Neither team showed much sign of being caught up in the monumental pre-game hype once the game started. The two teams traded blows for most of the first half, with Duke’s six-point lead with 1:30 remaining the biggest gap in the opening 20 minutes.

A key entering Saturday’s game was a foul issue; which team could avoid it? At first, it was North Carolina’s advantage. Williams committed his second foul with 15:16 to go in the first half and sat on the bench for the remainder of the half. Theo John gave Duke some really effective minutes off the bench in place of Williams, but he fould four times in just 11 minutes of action, forcing Krzyzewski to use a smaller lineup with Paolo Banchero in the middle for the final four minutes of the first. half.

Duke was at his best going down and attacking the edge of the dribble. The Blue Devils were getting to the paint before Carolina’s defense was established or finding gaps in the Tar Heels’ half-court defense. They beat Carolina in the paint 26-14 in the first 20 minutes. Carolina responded by getting 14 first-half points from Davis and forcing the ball to Bacot, who proved impossible to contain in the first half.

One play in particular — several offensive rebounds dragging Bacot to the line for free throws — prompted a few celebratory overhead punches from Davis on the sideline.

“Well done! Good job! Keep attacking!” he shouted to his players.

Only a three-point play from Jeremy Roach with 3.1 seconds left in the half separated the two teams before the break.

The start of the second half was characterized by spectacular swings in the opening minutes. Bacot committed his third foul on a controversial Williams play just 53 seconds into the half, with Duke opening up their biggest lead on a Banchero dunk the following game. At the time, Duke’s 41-34 lead with 18:39 to go gave the Blue Devils an 81.4 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN’s BPI.

Just when it appeared Duke was gaining full momentum, Carolina responded with a 13-0 run with 10 points from Love. A former five-star recruit who had his ups and downs for two seasons at Chapel Hill, Love was one of the catalysts for the Tar Heels’ late-season rise. He struggled for most of the first half, but he sparked Carolina’s turnaround again on Saturday night.

Earlier this week, Davis was asked about Love’s emotion during games.

“You should always act like you’ve been there before, but the way Caleb plays, he can do whatever he wants,” he said.

Love was the best player on the court in the second half on Saturday. He finished with 28 points, including 22 after halftime. He scored Carolina’s first six points in the second half and the last six points of the game. Love is now averaging 20.0 points in five NCAA Tournament games.

“Caleb got off to a little slow start,” Davis said. “I took him out. He came back, and he’s always been, all year, one of those guys who just got ready – he wants that shot. He’s actually looking for that shot. And very little A lot of guys in that situation are looking for that type of shot. Caleb is one of them. He has the confidence to be able to knock it down.”

Duke didn’t leave, immediately going on a 6-0 run to even the score. And after a Banchero jumper tied the game again with 10:52 to go, there was a collective nod of appreciation. Once again, the Duke-Carolina rivalry lived up to the hype.

“Tonight was a battle,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a game where the winner was going to be happy and the loser was going to be in agony. And that’s the type of game we expected.”

The second half was characterized by remarkable swings. After a 5-0 run at Carolina highlighted by a field goal and a Bacot foul that also gave Williams his fourth foul, the Tar Heels appeared to be firmly in control. Then Duke responded with a 6-0 run that took just 34 seconds, sparked by a Banchero block on a Bacot dunk attempt.

Perhaps the only moment to calm the crowd came with 5:18 remaining. Bacot landed awkwardly on Black’s foot and limped to the bench with a teammate under each arm for support. He went straight to the end of the bench under his own power, was controlled and returned less than a minute later.

Bacot fouled with 46 seconds left, but Davis expressed confidence that his star big man – 11 points and 21 rebounds on Saturday – would be fine for Monday night’s game.

“He will play,” Davis said. “He’s going to play. Even if he stays there, he’s going to play.”

At the final buzzer, as Krzyzewski walked down the sideline for the last time in his career, Carolina players and coaches rushed to the floor and celebrated for several minutes, shouting at their fans in the crowd opposite. from their bench.

It’s one of the biggest wins in Tar Heels history, something they’ve grown accustomed to over the past few weeks. After defeating Duke in Krzyzewski’s last home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, they have now handed the legendary coach his final loss in one of the most anticipated games in college basketball history.

But none of those victories were the jackpot. That comes Monday night against Kansas.

“One of the things these guys did a really good job of is celebrating a win, but also putting that aside and focusing on the task ahead of us,” Davis said. “I want them to celebrate tonight. It’s a special time for them. It’s a special time for our program. So I want them to have fun… We’re playing for a national championship. If you you’re not motivated for it, you shouldn’t play.”

Love added, “At a national championship game, what else can you say?”


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