Caleb Love scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half as North Carolina beat Duke 81-77 in the Final Four.
The first-ever matchup between Duke and North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament ended in a fashion perfectly fit for college basketball’s greatest rivalry.
Caleb Love scored 28 points, including 22 in the second half, to lead all scorers. That included the biggest shot of a night, a lengthy 3-pointer in the game’s waning moments to put the Tar Heels up four.
“It means everything to me,” Love said postgame of the victory. “I couldn’t do it without my guys and my coaches. They put me in position to be successful. One game away from the national championship. What more can you say?”
It was a back-and-forth game throughout with no team leading by more than seven points. The largest advantage was held by Duke, which built that lead with two quick baskets out of half. It was responded by Love catching fire, scoring 10 points in a 13-0 run for the Tar Heels, which flipped the game on its head.
“It was our defense. What we were doing on the defensive end allowed us to get out in transition,” Brady Manek said of the run. “We got stops on the defensive end and controlled that, so we played better on the offensive end.”
From there, the two sides traded metaphorical punches. The lead changed hands 18 times and was tied 12 times. It was an instant classic.
“I think (the game) reached the level you would expect,” Mike Krzyzewski described. “Kids from both teams played their hearts out. The crowd was standing most of the game.”
The game did get off to a slow start as the first half was marred by everything one would expect to see in big games. Nerves caused a slow start as the two sides combined to shoot 3-for-14 from the field before the first TV timeout. Both teams eventually settled in but got into foul trouble. The result was a choppy — but close — half as neither team was able to hold momentum.
That set the stage for a second half that will be remembered in college basketball circles forever, both for how it ended and how it served as the final game of Coach K’s legendary career.
That, though, was not something he was interested in discussing.
“I’d rather not,” he responded when asked to reflect on his career. “I’m not thinking about my career right now.”
That career was extended by two comebacks Duke pulled off in the NCAA Tournament, one against Michigan State in the second round and one against Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils hit seemingly every clutch shot possible in those games. This time out, though, it was the Tar Heels that made those big shots down the stretch.
“Tonight was a battle,” Krzyzewski said. “The winner was going to be joyous and the loser was going to be in agony. That’s the kind of game we expected.
“They made a couple more plays than we did, but our guys played their hearts out. I love this team and they’ve been special for me to coach.”
North Carolina will face Kansas on Monday night in the national championship game, marking UNC’s first appearance in the title game since cutting down the nets in 2017. While some might be worried about getting refocused after a victory of this magnitude, head coach Hubert Davis is not.
“One thing these guys have done a good job of is celebrating a win but then focusing on the task at hand,” Davis told reporters. “I want them to celebrate tonight. This is a special moment for them and for our program. We have more than enough time to prepare for a really good Kansas team.
“We’re playing for a national championship, and if you can’t get motivated by that, you shouldn’t be playing.”
Tip-off time for the national championship game is scheduled for 9:20 p.m. ET and will be televised on TBS.
Header image courtesy of North Carolina Athletics.