NEW ORLEANS — The Duke players froze, stunned at the finality of it all. Mike Krzyzewski walked slowly to center court to shake his hand.
Coach K’s legendary career came to an end on Saturday night at the hands of his bitter rival, four weeks after that same rival crashed the party in his last home game.
In an instant classic that more than lived up to the hype, the eight-seeded Tar Heels upset No. 2 Duke, 82-77, in the Final Four to advance to Monday’s national championship game.
Caleb Love, who dreamed of attending Duke but was never offered a scholarship, scored 21 of his 28 points after halftime and hit the game-winning free throws with 7.8 seconds left that sent the heavily favored Blue Devils home and Krzyzewski into retirement. . North Carolina, on the bubble as recently as February, advances to face No. 1 Kansas in Monday night’s national championship, dashing Coach K’s hopes of leaving behind a champion.
Trevor Keels, Brady Manek and Wendell Moore Jr. hit 3-pointers on successive possessions, the lead changing hands after each, to set up the frantic final 80 seconds. White Plains native RJ Davis gave North Carolina the lead with two free throws with 1:01 remaining, and Love’s 3-pointer increased the lead to four with 24.8 seconds remaining.
Duke started the second half strong, building its biggest lead to that point of seven. Undeterred, North Carolina unleashed by far their best stretch of the game. A 13-0 streak that began with consecutive 3-pointers by Love, giving the Tar Heels a four-point lead.
Duke hit back with six straight points, getting revenge for Paolo Banchero’s basket on the inside, as these two heavyweights kept hitting. The two teams converted on six straight trips, much to the delight of the crowd.
The momentum changed after a rare mistake by Banchero. Trying to save the ball under his own basket, he threw it straight to Armando Bacot. The forward scored and drew the fourth foul on Duke star big man Mark Williams. Bacot made the free throw and Davis added a jumper as North Carolina took a five-point lead in the under-8 timeout.
The Tar Heels lost Bacot momentarily with 5:18 remaining after he sprained his ankle in traffic while hunting for a rebound. It coincided with a 10-3 run by Duke that saw them go ahead on two free throws by AJ Griffin. A few minutes later, Bacot returned, although he was lame.
Neither team was able to create separation during the first 20 minutes of brilliant action. It was like two boxers feeling each other. There were five times and five lead changes. Davis was the Tar Heels’ best player in the first half, scoring 14 points on 12 of his first 22. Despite committing four fouls in just over 11 minutes, Marquette transfer Theo John made a significant contribution in Williams place plagued with fouls. . John had six points and four rebounds in those 11 minutes.
Duke entered the half three up, on the stretch of a Jeremy Roach three-point play in the closing seconds, which followed a 6-0 run at North Carolina.