Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova meet in historic Final Four

Jude Papillion, Sports Editor

After two years of pandemic restrictions and a month of thrilling March Madness action, championship basketball returned to the Crescent City for the 2022 NCAA Men’s Final Four. 70,602 fans filled the Caesars Superdome on Saturday to watch four blue-blood teams — the Villanova Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks, North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils — meet in a weekend of basketball that may never be forgotten. 

Saturday’s semifinal action tipped off with No. 1 seed University of Kansas handily taking down second-seeded Villanova University 81-65 in a game that the Jayhawks never trailed in. The University of North Carolina subsequently punched their ticket to the national championship game after narrowly defeating the archrival Blue Devils 81-77 in a highly anticipated and historic matchup. The contest was the 1,570th and final game ever coached by longtime Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski

Kansas opened the semifinals by scoring the first 10 points against Villanova, and they never looked back, shooting the lights out collectively, banking in 53.7% of their shots overall and shooting an even more impressive 54.2% from 3. David McCormack led the Jayhawks, going 10-12 on field goals for 25 points and nine rebounds. Ochai Agbaji finished close behind with 21 points, and Jalen Wilson had an 11-point, 12 rebound double-double. 

The Villanova Wildcats prepare to enter the court for their semifinal contest. (Jude Papillion)

Villanova was unable to recover after falling behind early and their defense struggled to prevent Kansas from having open shots throughout the game. Collin Gillespie led the Wildcats with 17 points while Brandon Slater had 16 points and eight boards. Caleb Daniels, St. Augustine High School alumnus and former Tulane basketball player scored 13 points along with five rebounds. 

Kansas forward David McCormack attempts a free throw during the Jayhawks’ semifinal contest against Villanova. (Jude Papillion)

Villanova and Kansas are both great teams, and both deserved to be in the Final Four, but Saturday’s main card was undoubtedly the matchup between UNC and Duke.

The contest, certainly the biggest ever between the two foes, was also one of the most anticipated games in the history of the sport. It was the first time one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports was played in both the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four, and for Duke, its last shot at a championship under Naismith Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski. North Carolina added more fuel to the fire by previously embarrassing Duke in Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, routing the Blue Devils 94-81.

The game definitely lived up to the hype as the lead changed hands 18 times, and the instant classic stood tied 12 times. Ultimately it was the Tar Heels that got the upper hand again, beating Duke 81-77 to advance to the national title game. Caleb Love scored 28 points including a clutch 3 and a few late free throws to secure the win for UNC. Despite fouling out late, Armando Bacot contributed with an 11-point, 21-rebound double-double. 

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski surveys his team during the Blue Devils’ open practice period on Friday. (Jude Papillion)

“Those kids from both teams played their hearts out,” Krzyzewski said. “It was a heck of a game.”

Despite losing, Duke played well aside from shooting just 22.7% beyond the arc. Top NBA prospect Paolo Banchero posted 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Trevor Keels was close behind with 19 points of his own. Wendell Moore Jr. also reached double digits with 10 points and eight boards. 

After 42 seasons at Duke that included 13 Final Fours and five national championships, Saturday’s loss was Coach K’s last game before retiring. Arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time, Krzyzewski amassed the most wins in Division I men’s basketball history during his career and his teams made a staggering 36 March Madness appearances. 

“I’ve been blessed to be in the arena. And when you’re in the arena, you’re either going to come out feeling great or you’re going to feel agony, but you always will feel great about being in the arena,” said Krzyzewski. “But, damn, I was in the arena for a long time. And these kids made my last time in the arena an amazing one.”

47-year coaching veteran Mike Krzyzewski visits with first year coach Hubert Davis prior to the Final Four. (Jude Papillion)

With the loss, his most consequential to the Tar Heels, Coach K holds a 50-50 record against UNC who now has a chance to win a title in the dome 40 years after James Worthy and Michael Jordan led the Heels to a championship in the same building.

“This program has won two championships here in this building, and there’s significance in that,” said first year head coach Hubert Davis when reflecting on his time as a Tar Heel player. “I had always wanted to cut down the nets and be a national champion at North Carolina, and I didn’t have that opportunity.”

Kansas head coach Bill Self is looking forward to the opportunity to win a championship after losing the title game to Kentucky in New Orleans in 2012. “I’m not a big believer on the past having a ton to do with what happens next,” Self said. “Learn from the past but certainly live in the present.”

1982 was the first of six times college basketball’s biggest stage has come to New Orleans and this is the Big Easy’s first time hosting since 2012. Tulane University is the host institution of this year’s Big Dance and the national championship game between North Carolina and Kansas is set to tip Monday, April 4 at 8:20 p.m. Kansas is seeking its first national title since 2008, and North Carolina was last crowned champions of college basketball in 2017.

Tulane University and the University of New Orleans served as host institutions for the 2022 Men’s Final Four. (Jude Papillion)

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