By Owen Kaelble | @OwenKaelble
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS — Twelve ties, 18 lead changes, many of the 70,602 fans in Caesars Superdome standing for 40 minutes at full volume, and one victor.
North Carolina sophomore guard Caleb Love drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing with 25 ticks left on the clock, the most historic of his 22 second-half points in North Carolina’s 81-77 semifinal victory over the Duke Blue Devils at the end of Mike Krzyzewski’s 42nd and final season as coach.
The Tar Heels (29-9) advance to Monday night’s title matchup with the Kansas Jayhawks, the record fifth overall meeting between the two schools in the Final Four, the second to settle a championship, and the first meeting for a title since the 1957 triple-overtime classic.
“I’m just overwhelmed with thankfulness,” said North Carolina coach Hubert Davis. “I think about the experiences that I’ve been able to have. I had always dreamed about being part of the program. And to think that I got to play for them, to think that I got to come back and be an assistant coach, and now I’m a head coach of North Carolina and we’re in the national championship game.”
Love scored 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting, but made just three of 10 3-point shots. Sophomore guard RJ Davis scored 18 points. Tar Heel junior Armando Bacot, who scored 11 points, 21 rebounds, the most in North Carolina’s Final Four history and the second-most in the school’s NCAA tournament history.
The 258th meeting in this intense rivalry ended after a remarkably competitive stretch to the finish. For a period of 6:52 – from the 7:17 mark to Love’s shot with 25 seconds to play – the largest lead for either team was two points.
With 4:36 left, North Carolina sophomore guard Puff Johnson tied the game at 67-all with two free throws. After freshman forward Paolo Banchero gave Duke back the lead with a free throw of his own, Love answered right back with a layup to give the Heels a one point edge, 69-68. Graduate forward Brady Manek then knocked in a free throw for North Carolina, freshman Trevor Keels answered with a 3-pointer for Duke, and Manek hit right back with a triple as the back-and-forth battle continued with North Carolina holding a 73-71 lead with less than two minutes left.
In the next possession, Duke (32-7) followed with a 3-pointer from junior Wendell Moore Jr. to give the Blue Devils their final lead of the night, 74-73, with 1:20 to go. After sophomore RJ Davis gave the Tar Heels back the lead 75-74 with two free throws, Duke sophomore Mark Williams had a chance to tie or give Duke back the lead with two attempts of his own.
There were 46.7 seconds to play.
Williams, a 72.7% foul shooter, took the first, which was long, and hit the back of the rim.
He took the second, which was short, and hit the front of the rim.
Love then hit the dagger to give North Carolina a 78-74 lead that felt insurmountable.
“I think it reached a level that you would expect,” said Krzyzewski. “Those kids from both teams played their hearts out. I mean, the crowd was standing most of the game, I think. It was a heck of a game. And so it met up to that. It was disjointed, which games like that can be, but I think it met up to that level.”
The loss for the Blue Devils ended the 42-year reign for Coach K, which began in March, 1980 following previous coach Bill Foster’s move to South Carolina to coach the Gamecocks. Coach K led the Duke program to five national titles, 13 Final Four appearances (breaking the record he had shared with John Wooden of UCLA), 36 NCAA tournament appearances, 15 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships, 13 regular-season conference championships. His final career record, including five seasons at Army, is a record 1,202 victories against 368 defeats for a winning percentage of 76.6.
His record against the Tar Heels: 50-50.
In the postgame press conference, rather than focusing on his coaching career, Coach K made an effort to center the discussion on his players and consoling them.
“I think when you have three daughters, 10 grandchildren and you’ve been through quite a bit, you’re used to taking care of the emotions of the people you love and that you’re responsible for,” said Krzyzewski. “And that’s where I’m at. And I’m sure at some time I’ll deal with this in my own way.”
For the rookie head coach on the other side, Davis is the first, first-year head coach to lead a team to a championship game. On the court tonight, the Tar Heels were led by Bacot, a first-team All-ACC member. The junior forward has now recorded a double-double in all five tournament games this year, and tonight grabbed the most rebounds in the program’s final four history. He now has 84 rebounds so far in the tournament.
With 5:18 left in the second half, however, the Richmond, Va. product had to leave the floor with an apparent sprained ankle after falling out of bounds. He soon came back, entering the game again only a few minutes later.
In the postgame press conference, Davis made it clear that Bacot will play on Monday night, sprained ankle or not.
“I have a read. He’ll play,” said Davis. “I can read. He will play. Even if he just stands there, he’s going to play. We’re going to trick Kansas. He’ll just sit there in the middle of the lane.”
Davis added 18 points and seven rebounds, Manek contributed 14 points on three 3-pointers, and senior Leaky Black almost captured a double-double with eight points and nine rebounds. The Tar Heels had only two points off the bench coming from two free throws by Johnson in the second half.
The Blue Devils dominated in the paint, with 48 points scored around the basket compared to 26 for the Tar Heels. Duke also won the turnover battle, only turning the ball over four times and scoring 14 points off of North Carolina turnovers. However, they missed eight free throws, going 12-20 from the line and gave up 17 offensive rebounds and lost the overall rebounding battle, 50-41.
ACC Freshman of the Year and Washington state native Banchero finished the season with a double-double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Keels, another standout freshman and a member of the ACC All-Freshman team, added 19 points off the bench in the losing effort.
“We would have liked to have been on the other side of it, but I’m proud of what my guys have done,” said Krzyzewski. “And they’ve been an amazing group for me. The youngest team I’ve coached. And we had our chances tonight. And they made a couple more plays than we did. But our guys played their hearts out.”
For Banchero, the journey this season was a dream come true.
“Just coming here, being from Seattle, the West Coast, far from home, these guys embraced me from day one. And Coach, recruiting me, he lived up to everything he told me.”
At the end of the gripping night, Davis left the arena after the 38th game of his head coaching career. Krzyzewski left after game number 1570.
“I’ll be fine,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena.
“And I’m sure that that’s the thing when I’ll look back that I’ll miss,” he went on. “I won’t be in the arena anymore. But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”
Soon the last question had been answered, and it was time for Krzyzewski to stand at the end of the press conference, walk past black curtains to a golf cart that was waiting nearby, and take a seat to the left of his wife Mickie. As they rode away in the direction of the Duke dressing room, they passed a promotional sign for the Final Four that said “The Road Ends Here.”