NEW ORLEANS — North Carolina vs. Duke has long been one of college basketball’s premier rivalries, the teams’ histories are so rich and their fans so ardently invested that even their regular-season encounters convey championship atmospheres. .
It’s such a contentious rivalry that North Carolina happily played spoiler in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game as driver of this legendary Duke program, soundly beating the Blue Devils in their regular season finale.
And, as if scripted, North Carolina ended Krzyzewski’s college coaching career, hanging on after a dizzying array of head changes to defeat Duke, 81-77, and denying Krzyzewski the chance to hoist the championship gear one last time on his exit from the sport.
North Carolina has advanced to its 12th NCAA championship game, where it will face No. 1 seed Kansas for the chance to win its seventh national title.
The scale of the game could be felt before the teams fell apart. Player introductions were barely audible above the roar of the crowd. The Caesars Superdome, which seats nearly 75,000 people, was dotted with blue outfits, both sky blue and navy blue.
The Blue Devils, led by a talented unit that includes three freshmen slated to enter the draft at the end of the season – Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and AJ Griffin – appeared to be in control early, albeit as expected in a game like this, no team got away. And they traded leads and 3-pointers until the final seconds.
Banchero, a 6-foot-10 forward who can score at all three levels, did just that against North Carolina, rising for 3 points and throwing powerful dunks as the Tar Heels players watched him slide past them to the bottom. basket.
But the Tar Heels were determined to capture that Duke and Krzyzewski moment once again.
So they matched the energy of the motivated Blue Devils and their passionate fans. They took advantage of Duke’s big men spending time on the bench with fouls. Caleb Love, who scored 14 points in the Round of 16 against Saint Peter’s and 30 against UCLA, scored seven straight shots to start the second half, overturning the Tar Heels’ halftime deficit to a 3-point lead at the start of the period. And it was a late 3-pointer from Love that sealed the win.
Armando Bacot, one of the centerpieces of North Carolina’s run to the Finals, took advantage of Duke’s smaller lineups when his bigs weren’t on the floor, using his 6ft 10in frame and 240 pounds to score at the rim and haul in double-digit rebounds.
Krzyzewski displayed a range of emotions in his last appearance as coach.
At times he would stand, almost stoically watching his players hit loose balls. Then he would resume his place on the small wooden stool by the Duke bench, swiveling back and forth as the teams ran down the field.
Duke had known all season that it would be Krzyzewski’s last, and the players did everything they could to postpone his retirement, beating Cal State Fullerton, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas to advance to the semifinals. of Saturday.
A historic run that began in 1980, the one that has included the most wins of any college basketball coach and shaped decades of NBA talent from Grant Hill to Kyrie Irving, ended Saturday night with a pair of free throws missed by Mark Williams, a 3-pointer and a final free throw in North Carolina.