By R.L. Bynum
NEW ORLEANS — Carolina again showed no interest in a storybook finish for Coach Mike Krzyzewski. No, this was another light blue Love story.
The Tar Heels weren’t having it in his final Duke home game and delivered another plot twist at the Final Four, ending his career with an 81–77 loss Saturday night in the second national semifinal at the Superdome before 70,602 fans.
Love scored 28 points, including clutch points at the end, to give Carolina the win and send No. 9 Duke home.
“It means everything to me,” said Love, who scored in double digits for the 32nd time this season and has 13 of his 15 career games of at least 20 points this season, four against Duke. “I couldn’t do it without my guys and my coaches. I give all the credit to them. They put me in the position and it was a team effort. Just one game away from a national championship, what else can you say?”
His 3-pointer with 25 seconds left off of a pick and roll gave UNC the lead for good and he split a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left. After Trevor Keels cut it to two by splitting two free throws with 10.4 seconds left, Love put the game away on two free throws with 7.8 seconds remaining.
Carolina (29–9) will face No. 3-ranked Kansas in the NCAA final (9:20 Monday night, TBS) for the first time since the Tar Heels won 54–53 in triple overtime in 1957 in Kansas City. Kansas (33–6), which beat Villanova 81–65 in Saturday’s first national semifinal, has won two of three Final Four matchups with UNC since then, all semifinals.
The Jayhawks won 79–73 in Indianapolis in 1991 and 84–66 in their 2008 run. The Heels won 78–68 in 1993 in New Orleans on their way to the title. The fifth all-time Final Four meeting will be the most all-time.
UNC is the third No. 8 seed to make the final (UCLA 1980 and Villanova 1985). It’s Carolina’s third trip to the final in six seasons (2016, 2017).
Coach Hubert Davis, who made a national final in his first season, wasn’t interested in dwelling on giving Krzyzewski a loss in his final game.
“That’s something that I’ve never thought about and would never think about,” said Davis, who is the fifth first-year coach to advance to the championship game. “All I’m thinking about are these kids, these players. And I told them how happy I am that I get a front-row seat for them to go through this season and these experiences. It’s a blessing for me. It’s a privilege. It’s an honor.”
Bacot (11 points and 21 rebounds), who turned his right ankle but returned, produced his 30th double-double to break the ACC single-season record before fouling out in the last minute. It was his fifth game with at least 20 rebounds this season.
Many national observers didn’t see Carolina getting this far but Bacot begged to differ.
“I would say our belief all year was strong that we can get to this point,” said Bacot, who joined Antawn Jamison (1998) as the only Tar Heel with five double-doubles in an NCAA tournament. “And I mean, at some points, 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 can get to the championship. And that’s what we did.”
RJ Davis scored 18 for his 41st double-digit scoring game of his career and 27th this season. Brady Manek had 14 points for his 105th career double-digit scoring game and 30th this season.
“It’s crazy to think about,” Davis said, remembering that Coach Davis put a photo of the Superdome on their lockers in October. “Definitely a surreal moment. It just shows how much confidence and belief he had in us at the beginning of the year. He told us we were going to be in this position, so we might as well just tell our parents to book their tickets now to New Orleans.”
Love did what he has done many times this season by going on a big scoring surge after struggling in the first half. This time, he was 3 of 7 from the floor in the first half. He scored 27 points in the second half against UCLA, he collected 22 after halftime against Duke.
“Coach puts the ball in me or RJ’s hand and tells us to make a play,” said Love, who tied his career-high with 11 field goals. “RJ 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.”
Carolina held Duke to 41.7% shooting from the floor, making the Tar Heels 23–0 when holding opponents to 45% shooting or worse this season.
“From a defensive standpoint, our emphasis going into the game was to protect the paint,” Coach Davis said. “In Durham, they had 52 points in the paint. At halftime, they had 26 of the 37 points in the paint. I said we’ve got to do a good job keeping them away from getting layups and dunks. Make them make contested jump shots. These guys were so good defensively, and I’m so proud of them.”
UNC jumped out to an 8–4 lead in the first 5½ minutes when Duke had more fouls (five) than points. A 7–2 Devils run gave them a brief 11–10 lead before RJ Davis hit a 3-pointer to make it 14–11.
Carolina couldn’t take advantage when Duke center Mark Williams went to the bench with two fouls because Bacot soon followed after picking up his first foul.
“I feel like in the first half we were settling for jump shots,” Coach Davis said. “Especially when Mark Williams was out of the game, I felt like it was an opportunity for us to attack the basket. And we started the game, they weren’t bad shots. I just felt like we could get better shots. Then we started penetrating, getting to the basket.”
Duke pushed its lead to six on a long-range Paolo Banchero 3-pointer with 1:30 left in the first half, but a Davis jumper, a Love layup and a Manek drive tied it at 34. Jeremy Roach’s driving 3-point play with three seconds left gave Duke a 37–34 halftime edge.
After Duke took a seven-point lead in the first 69 seconds of the second half, Love scored 10 points and two 3-pointers and Manek hit a 3 on a 13–0 run to go up 47–41. The run gave UNC its first lead since a one-point edge with 9:57 left in the first half.
“It was our defense,” Manek said of what fueled that run. “What we were doing on the defensive end allowed us to get transition points, and a lot of those points of that 13 run came from running transition layups, kicking it for 3. When we got stops on the defensive end and controlled that, we played better on the offensive end.”
The teams traded leads three times before a Banchero jumper tied it at 55 with 10:52 left.
Bacot’s three-point play with 10:31 left drew Williams’ fourth foul, then a short Love jumper put UNC up 60–55 with 9:48 left.
Duke took a one-point lead with an 8–2 run. Puff Johnson tied it at 67 on two free throws with 4:36 left.
The teams traded leads with a Manek 3-pointer with 1:41 left, countered by a Wendell Moore Jr. 3 with 1:20 left. Two RJ Davis free throws put UNC up 75–74 with 1:01 left.
Banchero led Duke with 20 points and Trevor Keels added 19 off the bench.
Coach Davis said it should be easy to move on to Monday night considering what’s on the line.
“We’re playing for a national championship,” he said. “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.
“After we played an unbelievable Baylor team, we were able to set our sights on UCLA,” he said. “After UCLA, Saint Peter’s, after Marquette. These guys have just been fantastic — because I want them to celebrate tonight. I just do. This is a special moment for them. This is a special moment for our program. So I want them to enjoy themselves. And so that’s important.”
Enjoy it, they will. As for the Duke side? Not so much.
UNC 81, No. 9 Duke 77
Photo via @UNC_Basketball