The first-ever NCAA Championship game between Duke and North Carolina is no longer some distant prospect.
This dream showdown will take place in the National Semifinals next Saturday if the Blue Devils and Tar Heels can win another game.
Caleb Love led North Carolina to the Elite Eight race Friday night with a flurry of twisting passes late in the game and deep three-pointers. The second guard to shoot straight streaks changed his boots after the break, then scored all but three of his 30 points in the second inning, garnering eighth-seeded Tar Heels for a 73-66 win over fourth-seeded UCLA.
Love’s biggest two baskets were 3 throws in the last two minutes of a tense second half back and forth.
First, set it up acrobatic Armando Bacot Save while falling out of bounds, the score tied at 64.
Second, which came across a screen outside the ball from Brady Manicgave North Carolina a three-point lead that Tar Heels did not concede.
What caused love to flare up in the first half after the first 1 vs. 8 game? Love credited his trust…and a fabled proposal from North Carolina Basketball Operations Director Eric Hoots to move from the Jordan Blacks to the Carolina Blues.
“I never play well in black shoes, so he asked me to change,” Love said with a smile. “you succses.”
North Carolina’s victory continues an unlikely rush from the NCAA Championship bubble to the cusp of the Final Four. The Tar Heels now only need to beat the March 15 seed, darling of St. Peter, on Sunday to advance to New Orleans.
Duke advanced to the Elite Eight Thursday night by not missing a shot in the final eight-plus minutes to pass Texas Tech. The Blue Devils are the favorites to beat Arkansas on Saturday in the Western Regional Title game.
Just four times prior to this season, Duke and North Carolina earned the Elite Eight in the same year. Only in 1991 both reached the fourth final.
While Cinderella doesn’t often feature four- and five-star recruits and doesn’t wear North Carolina on her chest, tar heels were hard to come by in mid-February. This is the team that lost five games by 17 points or more and went asleep with an embarrassing nine-point home loss to the heartbreaking Pittsburgh on February 16.
After some previous North Carolina losses, Hubert Davis said, “It was like, ‘Guys, I love you. After the amazing game in Pittsburgh, Davis said, “It was ‘You guys, come over here.'”
Davis reinforced his message the next day with a film session of 20 consecutive segments of North Carolina’s defensive failures. Right after that, Tar Heels produced what Davis described as his best practice of the season.
After the exercise, I said, ‘Why are you playing this force against each other and not against an opponent? “For whatever reason,” said Davis, “it seemed to resonate with them.”
Since Pittsburgh’s loss, North Carolina State has been the fourth-best team in the country, according to Bart Turvik’s Proficiency Rankings. The Tar Heels entered Friday after winning eight out of nine including defeating Duke to spoil Mike Krzyzewsk’s retirement party and dismantling Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament and their overtime victory over defending champion Baylor two nights later.
Heading into Friday’s game, UCLA appeared to be one of the toughest opponents North Carolina faced during their late-season run-up. The Bruins brought their roster back almost entirely from last season when they moved up from the top four to the Final Four and then took the undefeated Gonzaga for overtime in an instant classic.
While UCLA led most of Friday’s games, the Bruins were held back by two factors: Jaime Jaques’ right ankle injury and an inability to stop North Carolina’s slams.
Time and time again, Tar Heels used their high ball screen to get Love or RJ Davis into a favorable match against a UCLA big man. Love, in particular, exploited these mismatches, often driving past Cody Riley or rising and shooting from depths if given too much space.
Love said, “Coach Davis just wanted me to attack the basket. He feels better when I’m on a slope. I got a few passes and then the outside shot started to fall.”
While Jules Bernard scored a team high with 16 points and Tyger Campbell 15 points and 6 assists, the Bruins needed more than their man could give them to overcome a deadly second half for Love. Jaquez played valiantly on the ankle injury he picked up again against Saint Mary’s, but finished with just 10 points from 5 to 18.
Jaquez missed a few last-minute shots as UCLA tried to respond to Love’s slams. After the last win, North Carolina could celebrate another big win and look forward, first to St. Peter and perhaps later to the Duke.
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