Final Four: North Carolina K-O’s Coach K, Kansas cruises

Sports

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s remarkable career came to thrilling and sudden close Saturday night after Caleb Love made a key 3-pointer and three late free throws to lift archrival North Carolina to a thrill-a-minute 81-77 victory over the Blue Devils. This was the 258th, most consequential and maybe, just maybe, the very best meeting between these teams, whose arenas are separated by a scant 11 miles down in Tobacco Road.

The eighth-seeded Tar Heels (29-9), of all teams, pinned the 368th and final loss on the 75-year-old Coach K, exactly four weeks after they ruined the going-away party in his final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That loss hurt. This one stopped the coach’s last-gasp, storybook run one win away from a title game and a chance at his sixth championship.

When it was over, after playing through the nip-and-tuck stretch run without a timeout, Krzyzewski walked calmly to halfcourt and shook the hand of Carolina’s rookie coach, Hubert Davis.

So instead of Krzyzewski going for his sixth title on Monday, Carolina will try to win its seventh. It will be Davis, Love, who led the Tar Heels with 28 points, and R.J. Davis, who scored 18, going against Kansas, which beat Villanova 81-65 earlier in the undercard.

“Dwelling on the two wins against Duke doesn’t help us against Kansas,” Hubert Davis said.

Maybe not, but what a game! It featured 18 lead changes and 12 ties.

It featured another breakout performance from Love, whose 28 points after an 0-for-4 start were one more than what he put up in the second half of a win last week against UCLA in the Sweet 16.

“It means everything to me,” Love said of his key 3 with 25 seconds left.

At around the 2-minute mark, the teams traded three straight 3s. Wendell Moore Jr.’s 3-pointer with 1:19 left ended the flurry and gave Duke a 74-73 lead. It was the last lead of Krzyzewski’s career.

R.J. Davis came back with two free throws, then after Duke’s Mark Williams, in foul trouble all night, missed a pair from the line, Carolina worked the ball around the perimeter.

Tar Heels guard Leaky Black set a pick — make that threw a block — on Trevor Keels to free up Love, who drained a 3 for a four-point lead and what felt like massive breathing room in this one.

Love made three more free throws down the stretch, and then it was over. Krzyzewski walked off the Superdome floor hand in hand with his wife, Mickie.

Hubert Davis was crying again, much as he did last weekend when North Carolina punched its ticket to its record 21st Final Four.

“I felt like over the last two or three years, North Carolina wasn’t relevant,” said Davis, who replaced the Hall of Famer Roy Williams. “North Carolina should never be irrelevant. It should be front and center with the spotlight on them.”

Freshman Paolo Banchero led the Blue Devils with 20 points and his classmate, Keels, had 19. Another freshman, A.J. Griffin, never really got untracked, finishing with only six points.

Chances are Griffin and Banchero will be following Krzyzewski out the door. They are the latest in his revolving door of “One and Done” players, though neither they nor Zion Williamson in 2019 could lead Duke back to the promised land.

Kansas 81, Villanova 65

Ochai Agbaji followed a celebrating stream of Kansas players off the floor at the Final Four, their shouts of “One more!” echoing all the way up the tunnel of the Superdome and right to the door of their locker room.

One more game awaits, the biggest of their careers.

The Jayhawks earned a trip back to the national championship Saturday night with a shooting performance that will go down in history. David McCormack muscled his way for 25 points, Agbaji hit six 3-pointers and had 21, and the only No. 1 seed to reach the national semifinals rolled to an 81-65 victory over Villanova before a huge crowd that packed the home of the New Orleans Saints one year after the pandemic kept just about everyone away.

“That’s everyone’s attitude — even after this game, even after last weekend, the weekend before that — everyone’s attitude was on to the next one,” Agbaji said, “and not looking too far ahead at what’s going on Monday.”

It will be a blueblood clash, as the Jayhawks will face North Carolina, which has made more trips to the Final Four than anyone.

“You come to Kansas for big games,” said Christian Braun, who also had 10 points Saturday night, “but you don’t come to Kansas to play in the Elite Eight. You don’t come to Kansas to play in the Final Four. You come to play for a championship.”

The Jayhawks (33-6) hope a familiar pattern holds on Monday: The last three times the Jayhawks and Wildcats have met in the NCAA Tournament, the winner has gone on to win it all, including a lopsided Final Four matchup four years ago in San Antonio.

Playing without injured guard Justin Moore, the Wildcats (30-8) watched as Kansas scored the game’s first 10 points and eventually built a 19-point cushion Saturday night. And despite big performances from Collin Gillespie, Brandon Slater and Jermaine Samuels, the short-handed and undersized Wildcats never made it all the way back.

Gillespie, playing in his 156th and final game for the Wildcats, hit five 3-pointers and finished with 17 points, while Slater hit four 3s and had 16 points. Samuels finished with 13 points in the final game of his career.

“They played great. They were well-prepared. They really executed,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We did a lot of things wrong, but we want to make sure they get the credit they deserve. They played a great game.”

Each team finished with 13 made 3-pointers, and the 26 total shots from beyond the arc set a record for a Final Four game, topping the 25 that the same two teams made in 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Unlike that night, though, it was the Jayhawks who pounced on Villanova at the start, trying to run ragged a team whose depth problems were only compounded by the loss of Moore, who tore his Achilles tendon in the regional finals.

The Jayhawks applied pressure the moment Villanova inbounded the ball. They unleashed traps in half-court, something they rarely did in the regular season. And they twice picked the pocket of Gillespie, a two-time Big East player of the year, leading to easy baskets and a 10-0 lead before some of the 70,000-plus fans had even found their seats.

“We got off to such a great start in large part because of how we shot the ball,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Whenever Agbaji, the Big 12 player of the year, wasn’t enjoying the soft rims of the Superdome to knock down 3s, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound McCormack was having his way with the undersized Wildcats in the paint.

The Jayhawks’ lead soon stretched to 15 midway through the first half before Wright finally called timeout.

His counterpart could probably relate: In a game that Self has been loath to re-watch, the Wildcats raced to a 22-4 lead out of the gates four years ago and cruised to a Final Four blowout and eventually their third national championship.

“This is legit revenge for 2018,” tweeted the Mavericks’ Jalen Brunson, who had a big role for Villanova that night.

Daniels and Gillespie did everything they could to rewrite the finish.

Daniels, the New Orleans native who began his career down the road at Tulane, kept making hustle plays around the hoop, and Gillespie, the blue-collar kid from Philadelphia, was able to knock down a couple of contested 3s.

The Jayhawks still led 50-34 early in the second half when Wright went to a smaller lineup and ramped up the pressure on defense. The result was three consecutive turnovers, and quick 3-pointers by Slater and Antoine — the seldom-used guard who absorbed many of Moore’s minutes — that allowed Villanova to trim the lead to single digits.

“We felt like we were right there,” Gillespie said. “It’s a long game, it’s a 40-minute game, and we pride ourselves on playing 40 minutes every night. And we were just talking about dig, scrap and claw and try to steal it in the end.”

McCormack finally made Villanova pay for going small with a rim-rattling dunk with 10:25 to play.

And when the Wildcats made one last run, getting a three-point play from Samuels to close to within 64-58 with just over 6 minutes left, McCormack and Braun answered again. The latter’s deep fadeaway 3 as the shot-clock expired gave Kansas some breathing room again, and the Big 12 champs coasted from there into Monday night’s title game.

“You knew Villanova would make a run and we just kind of held on and responded,” Self said, “but I thought we played great. I thought we were disciplined defensively. I thought we stayed down on shot fakes, basically, for 40 minutes. And with the exception of defending the arc, I thought that we just played terrific.”

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