NEW ORLEANS – In a titanic third battle, Caleb Love and North Carolina proved they could play their outside-shooting finesse attack better than Duke could play bully ball.
The first meeting in the NCAA Tournament between the longtime rivals ended with a familiar storyline from the regular-season finale, when the Tar Heels got their offense humming after halftime with 3-pointers, floor spacing and off-the-dribble drives against Duke. They kept answering every push from the bigger and stronger Blue Devils, who tried to physically impose their will.
And this time, it secured 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. It not only sent UNC on to Monday night's title game to face Kansas, but it also ended the Hall of Fame career of retiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Consider it another validation of first-year coach Hubert Davis' belief in his players all season, including a backcourt in Love and R.J. Davis that has blossomed since the Tar Heels looked iffy to even make the NCAA Tournament as recently as February.
“Coach puts the ball in me or R.J.'s hand and tells us to make a play,” Love said. “R.J. and me have been doing it all season. Whoever has the ball, we both made great plays and it just happened to be in my hands, so I made the play. And we came out on top.”
Hubert Davis, a former UNC player and 12-year NBA veteran, had said he would pull from lessons learned under late Hall of Fame mentor Dean Smith as well as retired Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, his predecessor. Yet he would also add his own flavor to the Tar Heels' schemes, including a premium on more floor spacing with the ability to stretch defenses around 6-foot-10 Armando Bacot with an inside-out approach..
Saturday night's win in a matchup with the stakes higher than ever before offered everything the new coach had envisioned.
“From an offensive standpoint, we have to make 3s,” Hubert Davis said. “But the beauty for us is that we have a number of guys that can shoot 3s. It’s not just one 3-point shooter. We’ve got a number of guys that can shoot the ball.
"The thing that I love about our shooters, not only can they shoot, they shoot good shots.”
And man, did they hit some big ones, too.
Love was fearless again by shaking off an 0-for-5 start to score 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including a monster 3-pointer with 24.8 seconds left for a 78-74 lead. Brady Manek also came through after a rough first half with 10 second-half points, including three 3s of his own.
When it was over, the Superdome — filled with tense Tar Heels and Blue Devils fans — erupted into a roar as UNC began an on-court celebration while the dejected Blue Devils began to untuck their jerseys on their way back to the bench.
And after a series of postgame interviews, Love and R.J. Davis were practically skipping off the court for the locker room.
The question entering Saturday night’s game — besides whether the tension of this unplanned third meeting might be too much for the entire state of North Carolina to manage — was how Round 3 might look.
The Blue Devils won the first meeting on Feb. 5 in an 87-67 romp, a game that had them celebrating dunks and 3-pointers with glee while driving the Tar Heels’ homestanding fans to flee for the exits with five minutes left in Krzyzewski's final trip to Chapel Hill.
But exactly four weeks ago, the Tar Heels stared down the emotional fever pitch from Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a lights-out performance after halftime, shooting 59% while scoring 55 points in that 94-81 win.
In the end, this game ended up looking more like the latter. And this time, North Carolina will get to keep the final word against Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils with no more surprise meetings ahead.
Duke star freshman Paolo Banchero, a candidate to be the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, including multiple strong drives to the basket and plays in the paint to highlight Duke's physical edge.
But the Blue Devils shot just 5 of 22 on 3-pointers, unable to match the Tar Heels' perimeter punch. And UNC kept the pressure on, working off ball screens and kick-outs for clean looks. Or there was Love taking big shots like his difficult scooping drive under the outstretched arm of 7-1 Duke big man Mark Williams for a 69-68 lead with 3:03 left.
“They made a couple more plays than we did,” Krzyzewski said.
Now the Tar Heels are moving on after a matchup that somehow lived up to the spectacular hype and secured its place in the rivalry's incredible lore.
“Just one game away from a national championship,” Love said, “what else can you say?”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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