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Friday, May 27, 2022

North Carolina locks out San Pedro race, sets up historic Final Four matchup with rival Duke

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Saint Peter’s had been the ultimate loser, an overlooked team of overlooked players representing a school of 2,134 mostly overlooked kids. Within 10 days, they had wowed America, toppling Kentucky and Purdue, and exploding with joy along the way. They topped the pitchside tables and “trending” lists. They filled Wells Fargo Center and New Jersey Boulevards. They had made history, as the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight, and “hoped to do more.”

“Unfortunately for America,” however, as North Carolina’s Leaky Black said here on Saturday, “Cinderella or not, they’re kind of in our way.”

The eighth-seeded Tar Heels pulled away from Saint Peter’s on Sunday. They ended Cinderella’s magical streak with authority, winning 69-49 and dominating every facet of this Elite Eight game. They intimidated the outmatched peacocks, shot at them and sped past. They dominated a sold-out crowd that had fallen in love with the No. 15 seed and raced to the show’s 21st Final Four.

This one, however, will be unlike any of the top 20.

Waiting for them in New Orleans, for the first time in NCAA men’s basketball tournament history, will be their despised rival, Duke.

North Carolina guard Caleb Love and the talented Tar Heels ended the Saint Peter’s Peacocks’ Cinderella streak. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Saint Peter had been an uplifting story. Even the North Carolina players could admit it. But the Tar Heels, Black said, had “bigger dreams.” Their first-year head coach, Hubert Davis, had helped instill them by speaking evocatively about his own experiences as a player in North Carolina; about his run from 1991 to the Final Four and the memories that still linger. Davis told the players about him: “The only thing I’ve ever wanted is [for you] experience and see the things that I have been able to experience here.”

A couple of months ago, that seemed far-fetched. Carolina followed up a 28-point loss to Miami with a 22-point loss at Wake Forest. It was 12-6, 4-3 in the ACC, an NCAA tournament at best, and less than a year into Davis’ first season, fans had turned sour.

On a cold bus ride through North Carolina that night, Davis got upset. When the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill, the players stayed at the facility, met with each other and expressed their frustrations. The next day, they returned expecting a reprimand.

Davis instead delivered a counterintuitive message that, in many ways, marked the beginning of this Final Four run.

He brought positivity and promises that the team’s goals were still attainable. “Guys, I love you” He told them.

“And I feel like that was a turning point in our season, seeing how positive it was,” Black said last week.

They got four wins in a row. They lost to Duke and then to Pitt, but since then, they’ve only lost once in five weeks. They ruined Coach K’s Cameron Indoor Stadium farewell and then Baylor’s title defense. At the Sweet 16, they took hit after hit from UCLA and fought back.

As they survived and moved on, some ignored the bigger picture. However, Armando Bacot is a college basketball addict and couldn’t ignore a historic Cinderella run. He watched as San Pedro stunned Kentucky. “I’ve supported them throughout the tournament,” he said.

“I mean,” he admitted Saturday, “if I was a fan, I’d probably be rooting for them to beat us too.”

And thousands did. North Jersey descended on Philadelphia. The Saint Peter community and many others, from former students to teachers, from ministers to pub owners, from months-old babies to players’ childhood neighbors, joined the journey. They savored the occasion, posed for photographs and gazed at the arena in awe.

However, the Tar Heels had business to attend to. Bacot grabbed 14 rebounds in his first 13 minutes on the court. Carolina, equipped with length and athleticism the Peacocks had never encountered, strutted to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. Bacot finished with 20 points and 22 boards. Brady Manek scored 19. Caleb Love got past the San Pedro defenders and stabbed the rim at will.

His supremacy was both devastating and practical. They played as a team that had not, for a moment, looked at Duke.

Bacot, however, had stored that larger image in the back of his brain. He knew that, inches above the Tar Heels in brackets across the United States, Duke was waiting. “I would be lying to you if I said that hasn’t crossed my mind,” Bacot said Saturday. He assured reporters that he would see the Blue Devils that night. When they ousted Arkansas, he must have remembered that college basketball’s preeminent rivalry had never been contested in the NCAA tournament, and that an unprecedented Final Four matchup was now just one win away from Carolina.

Davis also knew that the possibility was lurking. In lecturing the players, he quoted a Bible verse, Proverbs 4:25, which he paraphrased on Saturday: “Keep your eyes straight ahead, ignore all the sideshow distractions.”

“What is in front is San Pedro,” he told reporters. “So all of our focus is on our preparation, our practice and making sure we play our best against a great team from San Pedro.”

But America’s attention was drawn to the allure of the story, from a rivalry first at Tobacco Road in April and, of all seasons, Mike Krzyzewski’s last. North Carolina had already spoiled their first retirement party by beating the Blue Devils in their final game at Cameron.

Now these red-hot Tar Heels have a chance to end their career.

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