UNC Must Put Away The Most Monumental Of Wins Before Another Momentous Occasion - National Title Vs. Kansas

NEW ORLEANS - And on Sunday, they all took a deep breath.

North Carolina, a sort of a high end Cinderella in this storybook NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed, just won its biggest game in program history - other than the six national championships from 1957 though 2017 - late Saturday night over upper crust, No. 2 seed Duke, 81-77, before 70,602 at the Superdome.

Mount K - that's K for DuKe and coach Mike Krzyzewski - was scaled in dramatic fashion with the Tar Heels stepping on his retirement party after 42 years and 50 wins over North Carolina against 48 losses since 1981.

And the Heels did it the way Duke did it to them so many times - by outscoring the Blue Devils, 8-3, over the final 61 seconds, erasing Duke's 74-73 lead it took with 1:20 left for the win in the first-ever North Carolina-Duke pairing in the NCAA Tournament.

The last 100 games in the nation's best rivalry - that's counting basketball and football - is now deadlocked at 50 as it neatly coincides with Krzyzewski's time at Duke from 1980-81 through 2021-2022. Coach K finishes 50-48, against UNC, though, as Duke lost two games to the Heels in 1995 that he missed after back surgery.

He may be feeling this one in his back, heart and mind for some time.

"We had our chances in the last minutes. You have a one-point lead. If you can get a stop," Krzyzewski said, but couldn't finish the thought. "But they're good. They put a lot of pressure on you offensively. And they made a couple more plays than we did. Congratulations to North Carolina. Hubert and his staff and those kids have done a heck of a job."

First-year head coach Hubert Davis and North Carolina (29-9) advance to the national championship game Monday (9:20 p.m. eastern, TBS) against No. 1 seed Kansas (33-6), which eliminated No. 2 seed Villanova (30-8) earlier Saturday with ease, 81-65.

"That's easy," Davis said when asked how he and his team put away such an emotional, watershed victory. "We're playing for the national championship."

And they have practice at putting away significant wins over Duke. Before ruining Coach K's retirement weekend in the Big Easy, the Heels crashed his last home game at Duke on March 5 to end the regular season with a dominant, 94-81 win.

"One of the things that these guys have done a really good job at is celebrating a win, but also putting that aside and focusing on the task ahead of us," Davis said.

North Carolina also already upset No. 1 seed Baylor and and No. 4 seed UCLA on the road to the Final Four.

"I want them to celebrate tonight, I just do," said Davis, who played at North Carolina from 1988-92 and was an assistant from 2012-21 with a national title in 2017. "This is a special moment for them. This is a special moment for our program."

All state championships are.

"So, we put that in a box to think about over the summer," he said.

A box wrapped in Carolina blue.

"It's definitely a great feeling right now," said guard R.J. Davis, who scored 18 points with seven rebounds and four assists to go with Caleb Love's 28. "Something that I'll cherish forever."

The win even made Armando Bacot's right ankle injury go away. He stepped on a teammate's foot with 5:18 to play and had to be helped off. The 6-foot-10 junior center returned, though, just over a minute later to grab two rebounds to finish with a game-high 21 and score two of his 11 points.

"I feel amazing. I feel great. Better than ever," he said.

His status for Kansas may not be 100 percent, but Davis figures he will be there in some capacity.

"I have a read," he said. "He'll play. I can read. He will play. Even if he just stands there, he's going to play. We're going to trick Kansas. He'll just sit there in the middle of the lane."

Written by
Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests. A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention. Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at www.acadianhouse.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.