By AARON BEARD
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In a titanic third battle of rivalry, Caleb Love and North Carolina proved they could play their outside shot finesse offense better than Duke could play bully ball.
The first NCAA Tournament meeting between the longtime rivals ended with a familiar scenario from the regular season finale, when the Tar Heels hummed their offense after halftime with 3 runs, ground spacing and off-the-dribble practices against Blue Devils. And they continued to respond to every push from the bigger and more physical Blue Devils with wide-ranging shots – although this time victory secured them a chance to play for the national championship.
North Carolina outlasted Duke 81-77 in Saturday night’s Final Four after shooting 50% and making 7 of 13 3-pointers after halftime in an iron-willed performance, which ultimately put end to retired Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Hall of Fame career.
When it was over, the Superdome – filled with tense Tar Heels and Blue Devils fans – erupted into a roar as UNC began a celebration on the field as the Blue Devils began to dejectedly peel off their shirts on the way back to the bench.
And after a series of post-game interviews, Caleb Love and RJ Davis practically jumped off the field for the locker room.
Love rocked an 0-for-5 start to score 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including a monster 3-pointer with 24.8 seconds left that made it a two-possession game. Brady Manek also came through after a tough first half with 10 second-half points, including three 3s of his own.
The question going into Saturday night’s game — aside from whether the tension of that unscheduled third meeting might be too much for the entire state of North Carolina to handle — was what Round 3 might look like. Blue Devils imposed their will in an impressive road win in February, only to see the Tar Heels pick up a win in Krzyzewski’s final home game at Duke.
In the end, this game ended up looking more like the latter, with the Tar Heels showing determination to deal with every element of adversity – an ankle injury for Armando Bacot, foul issues, late free throws missed and an at times dominating performance from freshman Duke Paolo Banchero.
And they kept the pressure on Duke every time on the court, especially Love with 22 points after the break.
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