Tar Heels reach championship, end Coach K’s career in classic

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NEW ORLEANS – North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis opened his first meeting with players and their families 363 days ago with a clear and confident message: Book your flights and hotels, we’re going to New Orleans.

“We’re playing for a national championship,” Davis said. “One of the things these guys have done a good job at is celebrating a win, but putting it behind us to focus on the task. These guys have been fantastic. I want them to celebrate tonight. This is a special moment. I want them to enjoy themselves. That’s important. We have more than enough time to prepare for an unbelievable Kansas team.”

North Carolina (29-9) ended the potential storybook ending for Duke (32-7) and Mike Krzyzewski with an 81-77 victory at the Superdome on Saturday. Caleb Love had 28 points, including six in the final 25 seconds, to provide the finishing kick to send the Blue Devils home.

“It means everything to me,” Love said. “I give all my credit to them. They put me in position. It was a team effort. One game away from a national championship. What else can you say?”

Davis’ first Final Four as a head coach was no novelty, and it validated North Carolina’s win in Krzyzewski’s final home game in Durham last month. The Tar Heels celebrated heartily on the court and promised they weren’t thinking about beating Duke, but recalling what it was like to see a picture of the Superdome in their locker room when practice started.

“It doesn’t help us for Monday. It just doesn’t. When I talk about the noise and things that aren’t beneficial to help us practice, to help us prepare, to help us for Kansas — we put that in a box for another day,” Davis said.

Davis, who played for the Tar Heels in the 1991 Final Four, was an assistant to predecessor Roy Williams for nine seasons — including two national championship game appearances and the ’17 title — before taking the reins from Williams on April 5, 2021 .

“Hubert and his staff and kids have done a heckuva job. That’s the type of game we expected. We would’ve liked to have been on the other side of it,” Krzyzewski said. “We had our chances tonight. They made a couple more plays than we did. I’m proud of them. I love my team. My staff loves them. They’ve been just a joy for me to coach.”

Duke was led in Monday’s game by freshman Paolo Banchero with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Krzyzewski’s seat on the bench is going to Jon Scheyer, a former player who stayed to serve under Coach K in a role similar to Davis’ under Williams.

“I’m sure when we look back on it, we’re going to be proud we got to play for him,” Banchero said.

To seal the semifinal victory, Love hit a 3 moving to his left from the top of the key with 25 seconds left. He said after the game Davis put the ball in his hands and told him to make a play. Davis said ball screens for shooters became the most effective weapon for the Tar Heels in the second half.

“In the huddle, I said, ‘At the end of the day, our guys need to step up and make a play,'” Davis said. “Caleb wants that shot. He’s looking for that shot.”

Davis said the emotion he saw from Love in the second half was the culmination of the two-and-a-half-month growth pattern of his entire team.

“We’re so connected on and off the court. It doesn’t guarantee wins,” Davis said. “It does put you in a position to do something special.”

Krzyzewski said the only position on his mind in the aftermath of his final game was consoling his Duke family. His goal of him every season, he said, was to have players leave the court for the last time crying tears of joy or tears of agony because the game meant so much to them.

“When we made our announcement it’d be our last year, I told my wife we’re going for it,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve got a great group. I think we’ve got a chance. I was right about that. We had a few bumps in the road. We won 32 games, man. They’ve been beautiful young men to coach. “

Davis said “he’ll play” on Monday when asked about big man Armando Bacot’s right ankle injury. He left for less than one minute on the game clock after needing assistance to the Tar Heels bench.

North Carolina owns six NCAA titles. The Tar Heels are playing in the championship game for the 12th time in school history and third since 2016.

–By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media

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