Caleb Love and a brilliant Armando Bacot send Tar Heels past Coach K and Duke in a legendary Final Four game
North Carolina defeated Duke 81-77 on Saturday night in the Final Four. The Tar Heels will take on Kansas Monday night for the national championship (9:20 PM, TBS). To the great satisfaction of Carolina fans everywhere, the Tar Heels win also ended the Mike Krzyzewski era.
The game was the first meeting between the storied rivals on college basketball’s grandest stage, and almost impossibly, it lived up to the hype. It was a game for the ages, with 10 ties, 18 lead changes, and enough second-half drama for a “30 for 30” film. The end result? After 42 years, 13 Final Fours, and 5 national championships, Krzyzewski’s legacy as perhaps the greatest coach in college basketball history is secure, but if this rivalry needed anymore juice, it got it Saturday night, as North Carolina ended the career of Coach K on college basketball’s grandest stage.
Duke had a 3-point lead at halftime in a nip and tuck first half, but the second half was defined by big runs.
First, it was a 13-0 North Carolina run that erased a 7-point Blue Devils lead. That run was led by Caleb Love and Brady Manek, who both struggled in the opening half but came alive in the second 20 minutes. Duke responded quickly with a 10-2 run of its own, led by a Wendell Moore Jr. steal and a pair of big plays by Paolo Banchero. Then it was Carolina’s turn, with a 10-4 mini run to extend the Tar Heels’ lead to 5 points at the under 8 media timeout. From there, Duke’s defense tightened up, limiting the Tar Heels to just one field goal and an Armando Bacot free throw over the next 5 minutes until a Caleb Love layup gave the Tar Heels the lead at the 3-minute mark. The result was a 1-point game at the final media break, as the blue-bloods traded body blows but never achieved separation.
As befitting college basketball’s greatest rivalry, the game came down to the final 2 possessions.
Love hit only 1 of 2 free throws with the Tar Heels up 2 late, giving UNC just a 3-point margin and Duke a chance to tie the game. Instead, Trevor Keels passed up a 3 and drove the line, with a foul called on the floor just before Keels made a layup. Keels hit only 1 of 2 free throws, and Love won a scramble for the rebound and this time, connected on both free throws to pad the Tar Heels lead to 4 and put the Mike Krzyzewski era to bed.
Here are Saturday Road’s 3 keys to the Tar Heels’ historic victory.
After a slow start, the “good Caleb Love” showed up
All season, the biggest question for North Carolina has been which Caleb Love will show up. When Love is good, the Tar Heels typically win. When Love is bad, the Tar Heels almost never win, though they did manage to beat Baylor despite a poor game from Love that also saw North Carolina blow a 25-point second-half lead.
Rarely, if ever, did we see both versions of Love in one game. Until the NCAA Tournament.
For the second time in as many weekends, it was a “bad Caleb” first half and a “good Caleb” second half.
Love was flummoxed and frustrated by Duke’s defense in the opening half, forcing shots and committing silly turnovers. He started the game 1-for-6 from the field and had 3 turnovers in the opening half. As a result, the Tar Heels struggled to find an offensive rhythm and couldn’t take advantage of Duke playing small ball with frontcourt foul trouble.
CALEB LOVE! pic.twitter.com/xh9FfUk91Z
— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) April 3, 2022
Fortunately for Love, there was a second half.
Love was brilliant throughout the second half, hitting 10 of his next 14 shots, including a monumental, stepback off-the-bounce dagger with 25 seconds to play. Love also connected on 3-of-4 vital free throws late, putting the game out of reach and sending North Carolina to its 12th national championship game.
Love had 28 points and just 1 assist, very much playing the role of a score-first point guard. But he had just one turnover in the second half, and whenever Duke appeared poised to seize the game by the throat, Love made a play. And in the end, he made more plays than Duke did, which is why the Tar Heels will play for the national championship on Monday night.
Frontcourt foul trouble for Duke
Mark Williams, who was quietly Duke’s best basketball player in the NCAA Tournament, was forced to sit the bulk of the first half after drawing 2 early fouls. His backup, the capable super senior Theo John, played well, but he also found himself in foul trouble, drawing 4 fouls in the first half to force the Blue Devils to play small ball in the final minutes of the opening frame. John was never a factor in the second half, unable to play his usual physical brand of basketball with four fouls.
When Williams returned, the sophomore never seemed to find the flow of the game, scoring just 8 points, grabbing just 4 rebounds, and failing to block a shot for the first time in the NCAA Tournament. Williams’ inability to influence the game helped North Carolina control the glass, winning the rebounding battle 50-41. That was a significant role reversal from the first 2 games between the rivals this season, where Duke outrebounded the Tar Heels by 13 over 2 games.
“Mark was never really in the game,” Krzyzewski told TBS after the game. And that about sums how Duke fell just short.
Duke did win the battle of points in the paint, but without Williams to contain the glass, the Tar Heels were able to drive and get enough in the paint to keep Duke honest defensively on the perimeter.
Armando Bacot was the best player on the floor
With all due respect to Love, it was Armando Bacot who changed the game. Bacot got Williams into his early foul trouble, and used the advantage underneath to control the glass and with it, the game. By night’s end, Bacot had snagged 21 rebounds, the most of any player at the Final Four since Nick Collison had 21 for Kansas in the national championship game against Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in 2003. Bacot added 11 points, seizing the national lead for double-doubles over the course of the 2021-22 season in the process.
Bacot isn’t the most polished player with his back to the basket, but he is masterful at finishing after grabbing offensive rebounds, and grabbed 8 Saturday night. He’s also lethal in the pick and roll, and while a smart Duke adjustment to drop pick and roll coverage limited the Tar Heels pick and roll offense at times Saturday night, Bacot will present plenty of problems for the Jayhawks Monday night.
Most impressive? Bacot fought off an ankle injury with 5:18 to play to return, grab another rebound, and play strong defense until he fouled out with 46 seconds to play. Caleb Love was brilliant, and RJ Davis was splendid, but there’s no national championship game appearance for North Carolina with Armando Bacot’s performance Saturday night.