NEW ORLEANS — As the final horn sounded inside the Superdome to signal the end of North Carolina’s 81-77 victory vs. Duke in an epic Final Four finale Saturday night, UNC stars R.J. Davis and Leaky Black sprinted to a corner of the court and grabbed their Carolina-blue jerseys to show to the large contingent of Tar Heels fans in a section just feet away from the elevated hardwood. Armando Bacot, Caleb Love, Brady Manek and the rest of the team – even the coaching staff – quickly joined them in jubilation.
There’s no celebration quite like a Final Four celebration, but this? This was different.
This was euphoria reserved for a win over a rival on college basketball’s biggest stage. For punching a ticket to the title game and ending the career of Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski in the most anticipated Final Four game in college hoops history.
UNC’s win over Duke had all the emotions of winning a championship and then some, minus the confetti shower and the net-cutting. So how will it respond with less than 48 hours to prepare for No. 1 seed Kansas for the NCAA championship on Monday night?
Downing this Duke team was no cakewalk. We’re talking about a squad with as many as five potential first-round picks. It was a battle with late lead changes and momentum shifts that could have gone either way. In the end, you could see the energy and relief escaping the UNC side after the win. One giant collective exhale after a noisy lead-up to an all-time game. Are they really up for one more of these?
This Tar Heels team seems to think it can be. Categorizing the joy of the win and preparing for Kansas is quite the challenge, though. They’ve got to be running on empty emotionally. But UNC coach Hubert Davis said Saturday that to get the best out of this team, he must consistently get them to play with emotional fire, which in part what has separated a just-OK Carolina team earlier in the year from the one that has marched all the way to the title fight. Maybe wearing all the emotions is part of the plan.
“I don’t think you can play this game absent of emotion,” Davis said. “I felt like at the beginning of the year consistently we weren’t playing with emotion. And then that changed.”
And so, too, did the Tar Heels’ season. They have won 17 of their last 20 games leading into Monday’s season finale. But the quick turnaround after that type of win Saturday – with coaches high-fiving on the court, fist-pumping to no one in particular, players reacting as if they’d just won one of the biggest games in the history of the sport – is a special test. You certainly didn’t see Kansas’ staff or players react that way after downing Villanova, but then again, Duke-UNC was a different animal entirely. Totally different.
The mettle of this team has already been put to the test in this tournament but not as much as it will be over the next 36 hours. They’ll have a short time to fill up the tank, scout Kansas and come together one last time to potentially make history as the second-ever No. 8 seed to win it all. Emotionally drained and physically exerted, almost certainly, but experiencing the gamut of emotions together. It’s a spot Davis feels puts UNC in a great position.
“The last two, two and a half months, the togetherness of this team, the health of this team has been at an all-time high,” he said. “We’re so connected on and off the court. And it doesn’t guarantee wins, but it does put yourself in a position to maybe do something special. That’s what these kids are doing right now.”
How well Carolina can separate itself from one of the biggest wins in program history may well determine how well it plays Monday and whether it can finish its historic run as a champion. There will be time for celebrating, eventually, just how magical these last few weeks have been for Davis and his team in Year One. Not now, though. Kansas — and a shot at the college hoops crown — awaits here in the Big Easy.
“There’s a number of things that I’m looking forward to processing,” Davis said. “But it’s not the time to do that right now. The time right now is to stay focused and continue to look at what we need to do to play our best [Monday] night. That’s the only thing I’m thinking about.”