NEW ORLEANS — On the first day of practice last summer, Hubert Davis took a photo of the Superdome in the North Carolina locker room. He told his players to tell their parents to book hotels and flights for New Orleans.
Davis was confident: The Tar Heels were good enough to reach the Final Four in his first year as their head coach.
An expectation that seemed unrealistic at the time and pure fantasy three weeks ago now looks prophetic. North Carolina beat Duke 81-77 in an all-time classic on Saturday night, and the Tar Heels will face Kansas in Monday’s national championship game.
An 8-seed, the Tar Heels are tied for the lowest-seeded team to reach the final since seeding began in 1979.
“Our belief all year was strong that we can get to this point,” junior center Armando Bacot said. “I don’t know if it was belief or if it was just us being delusional. I mean, at every point of the season, we knew if we came together as a team that we could get to the championship. And that’s what we did.”
North Carolina’s 12 title-game appearances match Kentucky for the second most in men’s NCAA tournament history. UCLA is first with 13.
Given the historic ramifications of the first NCAA tournament game in the sport’s greatest rivalry — a spot in the title game at stake and potentially Mike Krzyzewski’s final game — it was always going to be difficult to match the incredible pregame buzz leading up to Saturday’s dispute. But as the Duke-UNC rivalry tends to do, it answered the bell.
The arena was filled with an extraordinary energy in the minutes leading up to tipoff. The crowd of 70,602 didn’t relax for the next two hours in a game that featured 18 lead changes.
“I think it reached a level that you would expect,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, the crowd was standing most of the game, I think. It was a heck of a game.”
Coming out of the final media timeout with 3:32 remaining in the game, Davis took off his eyeglasses to clean them and let out a slight smirk to nobody in particular. He might have been thinking what everyone else in the Superdome was thinking: It doesn’t get much better than this in college basketball.
Duke. North Carolina. 67-67. Spot in the championship game on the line.
The drama was only heightened 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 answering with a 3 of his own with 1 :20 left.
RJ Davis, who carried North Carolina in the first half with 14 points, was fouled on the ensuing possession, hitting both free throws to give the Tar Heels a one-point lead.
It was going to take one of the two teams making the first mistake in the final 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 came down and hit a 3 to give the Tar Heels a four-point lead with 25 seconds left. Love would ice the game for the Tar Heels in the final seconds with free throws.
“Coach puts the ball in me or RJ’s hand and tells us to make a play,” Love said. “RJ and me have been doing 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 came out on top.”
Krzyzewski’s career officially comes to a close one step short of the sport’s biggest stage. He ends his career with five national championships, 13 Final Four appearances and nine appearances in the national championship game.
North Carolina made sure he wouldn’t get to a 10th title game.
Neither team showed many signs of being caught up in the monumental pregame hype once the game tipped off. They traded blows for most of the first half, with Duke’s six-point lead with 1:30 left the biggest gap in the opening 20 minutes.
One key entering Saturday’s game was foul trouble; which team would be able to avoid it? Early on, it was advantage North Carolina. Williams picked up his second foul with 15:16 left in the first half and sat on the bench the rest of the half. Theo John gave Duke really effective minutes off the bench in place of Williams, but he picked up four fouls in just 11 minutes of action, forcing Krzyzewski to use a smaller lineup with Paolo Banchero at the center spot for the final four minutes of the first half.
Duke was at his best getting downhill and attacking the rim off the dribble. The Blue Devils were getting to the paint before UNC’s defense was set or finding gaps in the Tar Heels’ half-court defense. They outscored North Carolina in the paint 26-14 in the first 20 minutes. The Tar Heels countered by getting 14 first-half points from Davis and forcing the ball inside to Bacot, which proved impossible to contain in the first half.
One particular play — multiple offensive rebounds resulting in Bacot going to the line for free throws — prompted a couple of celebratory air punches from Davis on the sideline.
“Way to go! Good job! Keep attacking!” he yelled to his players.
Only a Jeremy Roach three-point play with 3.1 seconds left in the half separated the two teams going into the break, with Duke up 37-34.
The second half featured dramatic momentum swings in the opening minutes. Bacot picked up his third foul on a controversial play by Williams just 53 seconds in, with Duke opening up his biggest lead on a Banchero dunk the following play. At the time, Duke’s 41-34 lead with 18:39 left gave the Blue Devils an 81.4% win probability, according to ESPN’s BPI.
Just when it appeared Duke was grabbing all the momentum, North Carolina responded with a 13-0 run featuring 10 points from Love. A former five-star recruit who has had an up-and-down two seasons in Chapel Hill, Love has been one of the catalysts of the Tar Heels’ late-season surge. He struggled for most of the first half, but he sparked UNC’s turnaround once again.
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 is playing, he can do whatever he wants to do,” he said.
Love was the best player on the floor during the second half on Saturday. He finished with 28 points, including 22 after halftime. He scored North Carolina’s first six points of 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 in, and he’s always been, all year, one of those guys that has just been willing — he wants that shot. He’s actually looking for that shot. And very few 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 go away, immediately going on a 6-0 run to tie the score. And after a Banchero jumper tied the score again with 10:52 left, there was a collective nod of appreciation. Once again, the Duke-North Carolina rivalry lived up to the hype.
“Tonight was a battle,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a game that the winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony. And that’s the type of game we expected.”
Following a 5-0 North Carolina run highlighted by a Bacot and-1 that also gave Williams his fourth foul, the Tar Heels looked 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 quiet the crowd came with 5:18 left. Bacot landed awkwardly on Leaky Black’s foot and limped to the bench with one teammate under each arm for support. Bacot went straight to the end of the bench under his own power, got examined and checked back in less than one minute later.
Bacot crowded out with 46 seconds left, but Davis expressed confidence that his star big man — who registered 11 points and 21 rebounds on Saturday — would be fine for Monday night’s game.
“He’ll play,” Davis said. “He will play. Even if he just stands there, he’s going to play.”
At the final buzzer, as Krzyzewski walked down the sideline for the final time in his career, North Carolina’s players and coaches rushed the floor and celebrated for several minutes, yelling to their fans in the crowd opposite their bench.
It’s one of the biggest wins in Tar Heels’ history, something they’ve gotten used to over the past few weeks. After beating Duke in Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, they’ve now handed the legendary coach his final loss in one of the most anticipated games in the history of college basketball.
But neither of those wins was the big prize. That comes on Monday night against Kansas.
“One of the things that these guys have done a really good job at 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. This is a special moment for them. This is a special moment for our program. So I want them to enjoy themselves … We’re playing for a national championship. If you’re not motivated for that, you shouldn’t be playing.”
As Love added, “Just one game away from a national championship. What else can you say?”