North Carolina cruises to men's basketball Final Four, sets up colossal clash with rival Duke

ByPete Thamel ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 30, 2022

PHILADELPHIA --North CarolinaandDukehave played each other 257 times since 1920. They've competed in thunderclap matchups of No. 1 vs. No. 2, have battled frequently in the ACC tournament, and even have faced off once in the 1971 NIT semifinals.

The 258th matchup will be the first one ever to take place in the NCAA tournament, a cosmic collision seemingly swiped from Tobacco Road fan fiction. North Carolina and Duke are located eight miles apart and have combined for 248 NCAA tournament wins, but their meeting in the Final Four in New Orleans will come with the highest stakes in the rivalry's storied history.

No. 8-seeded North Carolina's 69-49 evisceration of 15-seedSaint Peter'son Sunday sends the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the 21st time in program history, extending its all-time appearance lead over UCLA (18). With a week of buildup before the age-old rivals take the court, expect the game to be billed as the most anticipated meeting in the history of the Duke-UNC rivalry.

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis clinched a Final Four bid in his first season on the sideline at UNC. And his climb onto the national stage as a head coach creates another bit of basketball providence. Davis' first Final Four as a head coach fatefully intersects with the heralded exit of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who is retiring this season after leading the Blue Devils to the Final Four for a record 13th time in his career.

"I haven't thought about it at all," Davis said of Duke. "The only thing on my mind is celebrating with the rest of the players on what just happened today. Next week will be next week. And we'll deal with that next week. But right now I don't want to think about next week and lose the moment of today."

The confluence of the teams, stakes and Krzyzewski's career potentially ending at the hands of North Carolina creates the opportunity for generations of bragging rights for the winner.

There's two distinct possibilities: Either UNC ends Krzyzewski's career this Saturday on the biggest possible stage at the hands of his most bitter rival or Duke gets the chance on April 4 to play the winner ofKansas and Villanovato send Krzyzewski out with his sixth national title.

This game comes in the wake of UNC stunning Duke during Krzyzewski's final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, which at the time was regarded as the ultimate rivalry ambush. Now the gift of bracket kismet gives UNC the chance for bragging rights on bar stools and tee boxes around the state for decades.

"I don't really want to answer that right now," UNC junior Armando Bacot said when asked about Duke. "It's a good question. But I can't answer it right now. Coach will get mad at me."

Two programs that have combined to play 334 NCAA tournament games have never faced each other through all those journeys. (The national tourney matchup wasn't possible until 1975, when the NCAA began allowing more than one team per league into the event.) They've only been in the Final Four together one other time, in 1991, when Krzyzewski won his first championship.

While Krzyzewski's farewell will continue to vacuum up a considerable amount of oxygen, the job Davis has done deserves plenty of notice. UNC sputtered through much of the first three months this season, which included blowout losses to everyone fromKentuckyandWake Forest, at home against Duke and even to visitingPittsburgh.

But Davis steadily guided the Tar Heels from the wrong side of the bubble to the Final Four after that mid-February loss to Pitt. By doing it and winning four games in his first NCAA tournament, Davis becomes the first head coach in his first season on the sideline to reach the Final Four since the late Bill Guthridge guided the Tar Heels there in 1998.

"Shared experiences and the time that we've spent on and off the court has allowed us to grow together, to understand each other, to accept each other," Davis said Saturday, "to see the gifts and talents that ... allow us to collectively be the best that we can be, and we're settled now. We're in a place of togetherness because of time shared together."

As for Sunday's game, midnight struck for Saint Peter's soon after tipoff, and the charmed run of the tiny school from Jersey City, New Jersey, ended with a wince-enduing thud. North Carolina jumped out to a 9-0 lead and never really felt threatened -- with superior size, a distinct advantage in athleticism and enough mettle to never give the Peacocks a blink of hope.

Saint Peter's historic run in the NCAA tournament came more through collective grit than offensive precision. And on Sunday, they sputtered so badly in the first half that it managed to mute an electric crowd at the Wells Fargo Center that came eager to again witness history.

Saint Peter's shot 1-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half, and its futility was best summed up after coach Shaheen Holloway took a time out just 2:30 into the game and the Peacocks already trailing 7-0. He designed a deft play out of the break, which resulted in a wide-open lob to leading scorer Daryl Banks III. Banks flubbed the layup, setting the tone for Saint Peter's 7-for-31 shooting half.

Saint Peter's slogged into halftime down 38-19, prompting the perpetually snarling Holloway to contort his facial expressions to inventive expressions of repulsion. The Peacocks exit the tournament as the only No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight, a new standard for underdog runs.

The cold reality for Saint Peter's will likely continue into the week, as Holloway is widely expected to become the new head coach atSeton Hall. Holloway is a Seton Hall graduate, one of the most important players in program history who also helped build the current iteration of the program by serving eight seasons as Kevin Willard's assistant.

Holloway certainly didn't want to go out this way, with television trucks racing for Tobacco Road B-roll by halftime. UNC had everything working:Bacot grabbed 15 first-half rebounds, finishing with 22 and seemingly doing chin-ups on the rim as he parted Saint Peter's players like bowling pins. He also led the team in scoring with 20.

"Bacot is good, man," Holloway said. "When you get 22 and 20, it's pretty impressive. He did a good job and he had 15 [rebounds] at halftime. No one really dominated us like that before. He was kind of all over the place. Touched everything."

Brady Manekadded 19 points for UNC, as the 6-foot-9 senior who can score inside and out (4-for-6 from 3) presented just the type of player Saint Peter's had no answer for.

Their performance helps set up the third meeting of North Carolina and Duke this season. The Blue Devils won by 20 in the first game in Chapel Hill on Feb. 5, and UNC returned with an eye-popping 13-point victory one month later in Coach K's Cameron Indoor Stadium farewell in Durham.

The third and final meeting, however, comes with a whole new layer of history, importance and attention, a delicious plot twist in a rivalry that has rollicked for more than a century.

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