In the first-ever NCAA Tournament matchup between the two rivals, the North Carolina men’s basketball team won an instant classic 81-77 in the Final Four to move on to the National Championship.
UNC got on the board first when senior wing Leaky Black nailed a corner three, but two dunks from Duke’s Mark Williams gave the Blue Devils a 4-3 lead heading into the first media timeout. Both teams would stay locked in defensively, as UNC held a narrow 14-13 advantage with 11:12 to play in the half.
Following the stoppage, junior forward Armando Bacot was taken out of the game and the Blue Devils immediately started attacking the basket, scoring four straight buckets in the paint. Through 12 minutes, Duke led 21-18.
For the next several possessions, both teams trade blows with timely baskets to keep the game within reach. Playing key minutes in place of Williams – who picked up two early fouls – Duke’s Theo John scored six points and grabbed four rebounds before collecting his fourth foul with the Blue Devils ahead 28-26 at the final media timeout.
With both sides experiencing frontcourt foul trouble, each team ran a small lineup for the final minutes of the half. This enabled fast-paced play, but neither group could pull ahead and the Blue Devils headed into the break up 37-34.
Duke scored the first four points of the second half, but quickly, sophomore guard Caleb Love erupted. He nailed two straight threes before graduate forward Brady Manek made one of his own. After a steal, Love finished a fastbreak layup to finish an 11-0 run to give the Tar Heels a 45-41 lead. Both teams later added another make, and UNC held a 47-44 advantage at the first media timeout of the half.
For the next few minutes, both teams scored at will, as Black and Manek each made a three to pace the Tar Heels’ offense. Banchero continued to work for the Blue Devils, and the score was deadlocked at 55 at the under-12 timeout.
A quick and-one from Bacot gave the Tar Heels a three-point lead, and also gave Williams his fourth foul. UNC pushed the pace on offense and came away with key stops to build a 62-57 lead with 7:44 remaining.
After UNC took the lead, Duke immediately struck back. A 6-0 run helped the Blue Devils regain control, as they led 63-62. After several free throws from both sides, the game was tied at 65, but the Tar Heels looked to be dealt a blow when Bacot left with an ankle injury. However, he returned one minute later with the score even at 67, setting up a thrilling final three and a half minutes.
A Love layup gave UNC a one-point lead and a Manek free throw put the Tar Heels up two. Then, Duke’s Trevor Keels nailed a triple before Manek responded with one of his own. Immediately after, Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. drilled another dagger, and the Blue Devils led 74-73 with 1:18 to go.
On the Tar Heels’ next possession, Davis was fouled on a drive to the rim and made both free throws to put UNC up one. On the other end, Bacot fouled Williams for his fifth – and final – foul of the game. Williams missed both free throws, and UNC kept its one-point lead.
With the clock winding down, the Tar Heels slowed the offense and the ball swung to Love. He promptly fired and nailed the triple on the left wing to put UNC up four with 25 seconds left. Duke made a driving layup and Love split his pair of free throws to keep the Tar Heels’ lead at three before Keels made one to trim the deficit to two.
After a UNC defensive rebound, Love was fouled and was sent to the line. He calmly stepped in and made both shots, and Keels’ three rimmed off and the Tar Heels won 81-77.
Who stood out?
When offense was hard to come by in the first half, Davis took control by scoring 14 points before the half.
Much like the game against UCLA, Love broke out of his slump in the second half and scored 10 quick points. He finished the game with 28 points.
The Blue Devils were paced by forward Paolo Banchero, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
When was it decided?
Once Love made both free throws, the Tar Heels led by four and after Duke missed its final desperation heave, the semifinal win was sealed.
Why does it matter?
As the first NCAA Tournament game between the two teams – in the Final Four, no less – the highly-anticipated matchup was as entertaining as advertised. Both sides executed when needed, which set up the all-time late-game thriller.
The loss marks the end of the career of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and UNC will play for its first national title since 2017.
When do they play next?
With the win, North Carolina will play Kansas for the national championship on Monday night. The game will tip off at approximately 9:20 p.m.
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