by Aaron Beard, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS—In a titanic third rivalry battle, Caleb Love and North Carolina proved they could play their outside-shooting finesse attack better than Duke could play bully ball.
The first meeting in the NCAA Tournament between the longtime rivals ended with a familiar storyline from the regular-season finale, when the Tar Heels got their offense humming after halftime with 3-pointers, floor spacing and off-the-dribble drives against the Blue Devils. And they kept answering every push from the bigger and more physical Blue Devils with big-time shots — though this time, the win secured a chance to play for the national championship.
North Carolina outlasted Duke 81-77 in Saturday night’s Final Four after shooting 50% and making 7 of 13 3-pointers after halftime in an iron-willed performance, one that ultimately ended the Hall of Fame career of retiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
When it was over, the Superdome — filled with tense Tar Heels and Blue Devils fans — erupted into a roar as UNC began an on-court celebration while the Blue Devils began to dejectedly untuck their jerseys on their way back to the bench.
And after a series of postgame interviews, Caleb Love and R.J. Davis were practically skipping off the court for the locker room.
Love shook off an 0-for-5 start to score 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including a monster 3-pointer with 24.8 seconds left that made it a two-possession game. Brady Manek also came through after a rough first half with 10 second-half points, including three 3s of his own.
The question entering Saturday night’s game — besides whether the tension of this unplanned third meeting might be too much for the entire state of North Carolina to manage — was how Round 3 might look. The Blue Devils imposed their will in an impressive blowout road win in February, only to see the Tar Heels come through with a win in Krzyzewski’s final home game at Duke.
In the end, this game ended up looking more like the latter, with the Tar Heels showing the resolve to handle every piece of adversity — an ankle injury for Armando Bacot, foul trouble, some missed late free throws and a sometimes-dominant performance from Duke freshman Paolo Banchero.
And they kept the pressure on Duke every time down the court, particularly Love with 22 points after the break.
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