By R.L. Bynum
NEW ORLEANS — In the most historic battle in the history of sports’ greatest rivalry, North Carolina beat Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last Duke team the way his Blue Devils won so many nights — with lethal outside shooting.
With that, the Tar Heels (29-9) and Coach Hubert Davis ushered in a new era in the rivalry.
Davis showed that his new brand of Carolina basketball could be a national force for years after the Tar Heels made him only the fifth first-year coach to make the NCAA tournament championship game.
There are plenty of principles that he learned well from his years playing for one Hall of Fame coach in Dean Smith and coaching under another in Roy Williams.
UNC faces No. 3-ranked Kansas (33–6) in Monday night’s 9:20 championship game (TBS) at the Superdome, where the Tar Heels won titles in 1982 and 1993 under Smith.
Davis’ style, which spaces the floor and stretches out defenses, has given the program a new variation of what was so successful for Smith and Williams. He’s already shown that, with the right players, it can be wildly successful in today’s era of college basketball.
Davis’ four-out, one post player offensive attack looked different from anything Carolina had deployed through many tradition-rich years. Early in the season, through notable struggles and painful losses, he was the target of heavy criticism from some fans.
All that pain has long washed away and was forgotten after Saturday night’s epic 81–77 Final Four victory at the Superdome befitting the rivalry that will forever be remembered as a legendary game.
A talented iron five group of Tar Heels starters showed that, in this era of college basketball, that’s the way to go.
“I’ve always felt working inside out is the way for successful offensive basketball and that’s the way we’re going to do it,” said Davis, who has center Armando Bacot as the linchpin inside with the dangerous shooting of Caleb Love, RJ Davis and Brady Manek outside. Even Leaky Black sank a pair of 3-pointers.
“We took shots that we needed to take. And Caleb and RJ and Brady and also Leaky, stepped up and made shots from 3 and put us in a position to win,” Davis said.
Duke tried to will its way to victory with physical play because its traditional perimeter strength wasn’t there, going 3 of 10 from 3-point range in the second half and 5 of 22 for the game.
It didn’t work.
The Tar Heels spaced the floor, freed up shooters with the same ball screens that worked so well in the 94–81 March 5 upset victory in Durham, and drove on Duke when they needed to down the stretch.
But the key element making Davis’ system work is 3-point shooting.
In the second half, deploying the marksmanship of Love and Manek sent Duke home the way Krzyzewski’s teams tortured opponents over the years with shooters such as J.J. Redick, Christian Laettner, Jay Williams, Trajon Langdon and Jon Scheyer, the latter now its head coach.
Carolina made 7 of 13 3-point attempts after halftime, when Love scored 22 of his 28 points and all three of his 3-pointers. Manek finished with 10 points and all three of his 3s in the second half.
The same way that Carolina fans grew to hate players such as Redick, Love is probably in that category for Duke fans after scoring at least 20 points against the Blue Devils for the fourth time in five meetings.
“Who wouldn’t want to go down in history was one of the guys to knock off Duke and have a big game,” Love said. “I guess I live for the big moment.”
Add the inside presence of Bacot, and Duke didn’t have enough answers.
“From an offensive standpoint, we have to make 3s,” Davis said. “But the beauty for us is that we have a number of guys that can shoot 3. It’s not just one 3-point shooter. We’ve got a number of guys that can shoot the ball. The thing that I love about our shooters, not only can they shoot, they shoot good shots. And so our emphasis is to attack the basket. First and foremost, we want to feed the ball down to Armando, plain and simple, period, the end. We want him to dominate down low in the post.”
There were no shots bigger than when Love, coming off a Leaky Black screen, sank a huge 3-pointer with 24.8 seconds left. Many a night, a Duke sharpshooter would shoot down an opponent’s dreams with a big shot like that.
“Coach wanted me to get the switch on Mark Williams,” Love said. “So Mark Williams was guarding Leaky. Set the ball screen. So, I got the switch and he stepped back and so I just pulled up and shot.”
Saturday night, Love ended Krzyzewski’s dreams of one last national championship with that shot and a pair of extra-large free throws with eight seconds left.
Now that Krzyzewski’s career came to a heartbreaking end for him, it’s time to move on from the adulation showered on him all season. It’s time to shift the spotlight to Davis, who has helped Carolina seize control of the rivalry in epic fashion.
The Davis era is off to an impressive start.
Photo via @UNC_Basketball