NEW ORLEANS — As he sat down on the press table, Caleb Love was at a loss for words.
Over 70,000 people watched as his shot hung in the air.
Love drained the most important bucket of his life — a dagger 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds left, leading UNC to an 81-77 win over Duke in the Final Four, sending Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement on a rivalry loss and booking the Tar Heels a trip to the national championship against Kansas.
Now, staring at a sea of cameras and reporters waiting for him to say something, anything, about the seemingly-superhuman display he had just put on, Love was at a loss for words.
“Just one game away from a national championship,” he said. “What else can you say?”
He’s right — what else can you say?
Can you talk about the indescribable build-up for this game? Can you talk about how this “grandest stage of them all” grudge match had a chance to be the last game in the career of a man who is the winningest coach in college basketball history?
This was the first time that the Tobacco Road rivalry had taken place on as grand a stage as the NCAA tournament, and in the Final Four, no less.
You might be inclined to sit and wonder about the legacy of this game — but if first-year head coach Hubert Davis had it his way, you wouldn’t.
After all, there’s still another game to play.
“Dwelling on the two wins against Duke doesn’t help us against Kansas,” Davis said. “So we put that in a box to think about over the summer, but right now is a time of celebration, and then we focus on preparing ourselves to play for a national championship against Kansas.”
And frankly, there was no legacy on that court. There was no rivalry, there was no hatred. At the end of the day, no matter what you may think or believe, only one thing was true for certain in those dying moments.
There were two teams that wanted to win a basketball game and play for a national title. One wanted it more, one team executed the right play and one man drilled a clutch bucket and some clutch free throws to seal the win.
On Saturday night, that man was Love.
His play, along with some big shots from sophomore guard RJ Davis, secured the Tar Heels' a national championship berth.
“Coach puts the ball in me or RJ's hands and tells us to make a play,” Love said. “RJ and me have been doing it all season. Whoever has the ball, we both made great plays and it just happened to be in my hands, so I made the play.”
To be sure, this was not a team that ever doubted that it could reach these heights.
During preseason practice, Hubert Davis left photos of the Caesars Superdome in his players' lockers, encouraging them to dream of reaching moments like this. Later down the line, when they hit a stride late in the season that ended with a win against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, they weren’t playing like a team with no national title aspirations.
They were playing like a team that wasn’t suffering the weight of expectation.
Almost nobody expected the Tar Heels to get this far. Even once they did get this far, few predicted a win — every expert from The Athletic favored with Blue Devils on Saturday night.
“I don’t know if it was belief or if it was just us being delusional,” junior forward Armando Bacot said. “At every point of the season, we knew, like, if we came together as a team that we can get to the championship, and that’s what we did.”
Later in the press conference, Love was asked about Duke supposedly being his dream school as a high school recruit — a notion that Davis quickly shot down. He yanked his player and the media back to the moment.
“His dream school was North Carolina!” Davis said. “He’s living his dream!”
That’s why Love was at a loss for words as he sat down. What else can you say about tonight that hasn’t already been said?
The rivalry, the retirement, the dreams, the clutch moments — it’s all been said.
There really is only one more thing to say, the only thing the team really wants to hear now: onto Monday. Onto Kansas.
“Playing for the national championship — if you’re not motivated for that, you shouldn’t be playing,” Hubert Davis said.
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