NEW ORLEANS — Coach K’s storied career is over.
North Carolina played the ultimate villain again, stunning archrival and No. 2 seed Duke, 81-77, in the Final Four on Saturday at Caesars Superdome before a crowd of 70,602.
Caleb Love’s dagger three-pointer with 28 seconds left, followed by a free throw, gave the No. 8 seeded Tar Heels a four-point lead and helped them pull off the upset. Trevor Keels’ free throw with 10.4 seconds left made it 79-77 before Love (28 points) drained a pair of free throws to solidify the victory.
UNC (29-9) advanced to Monday’s national championship (9:20 pm ET, TBS) to meet Kansas and ended Mike Krzyzewski’s storied career and a chance at winning a sixth title. They had previously spoiled Coach K’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5. Krzyzewski is now officially retired and assistant Jon Scheyer is Duke’s new head coach.
‘Both teams played their hearts out’:Six defining moments from North Carolina and Duke’s Final Four classic
Empathy:Coach K’s gift to his players after Duke’s Final Four loss: Easing their pain
“Coach K is unbelievable,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “And that team is the best team so far that we have played. And we just happened to make some more plays tonight.”
Those plays came in a thrilling final two minutes. Duke guard Trevor Keels’ three-pointer with 2:05 left gave the Blue Devils a 71-70 lead before UNC big man Brady Manek countered with a three-pointer of his own. A tip-out on the ensuing play led to Wendell Moore Jr. draining a three-pointer and giving the Blue Devils a 74-73 edge. Then UNC guard RJ Davis’ free throws with 1:01 left made it 75-74 in favor of the Tar Heels, setting up Love’s heroics in the game’s final minute. Two missed free throws by Mark Williams in the closing minutes proved costly for Duke.
“You don’t define a season with one game or one minute of a game,” Krzyzewski said. “You define a season by what’s happened throughout the whole season. It’s been a heck of a year for us.”
Still, the Blue Devils were a favorite to win it all. And now North Carolina – behind a passionate first-year coach in Davis – has won on the biggest stage in a rivalry game that was hyped as the “biggest game in college basketball history” and “the game of the century.”
Davis said throughout the week he loved when his team played with emotion. Love was taking his coach’s advice, pointing passionately to the North Carolina crowd and a pack of former Tar Heels players after making back-to-back three-pointers and a lay-up to give UNC a decisive 45-41 edge at the start of the second half with 16:21 left. After a poor shooting first half, UNC amped up its defense in the second half, especially in the paint, and stopped settling for outside shots.
“We’re playing for a national championship,” Davis said. “One of the things our team has done well is celebrating a win but then setting our sights on what’s next. I want them to celebrate tonight. That’s important.”
The Tar Heels were on the NCAA Tournament bubble at the start of March. Now they’re playing in the national title game. Davis decided to put a photo of the Superdome in his players’ lockers at the start of practice back in October and now that belief system has come to fruition. UNC won its best player, Armando Bacot, getting hurt in the game’s final five minutes – leaving the game with an ankle injury before re-entering.
Duke star Paolo Banchero led the Blue Devils with 20 points, but Duke couldn’t convert down the stretch. They shot just 5-for-22 from beyond the arc and were hampered by foul trouble early. Bench player Keels played huge for Duke, scoring 19 points off the bench.
“I think all of us left it out there and played with joy,” Keels said. “We had fun out there. We came up short, but we for sure had fun out there.”
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.