A scythe has stalked Coach K’s career since he announced his plan to retire last July. On Saturday night, Duke’s final Final Four of the Mike Krzyzewski era came to a grisly end. UNC’s 81-77 victory over their arch-rival also featured a familiar slayer in Caleb Love.
This was easily the worst Duke loss of the Coach K era and Love’s role in putting the kibosh on his career increased its potency exponentially. Worse than Eric Maynor pulling up near the top of the key to defeat Duke in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Worse than C.J. McCollum leading a No. 15 seed over Duke. Being dispatched by the nerds from Mercer was a kick in the gonads. UNC and Caleb Love came in with more sadistic intentions.
UNC and Duke spent the second half exchanging buckets and leads for most of the second half. Gripping a slim one-point lead, Love paused near midcourt with 34 seconds remaining to dribble down the clock, scanned the floor, drove his defender into a hard screen from RJ Davis, rose up from the top of the key and sank the coup de grâce. Love’s dagger unleashed blood-curdling screams from Duke fandom, followed by a deafening silence. Every traumatized Duke fan will be describing Love’s shot and where they were at to their therapists for the next decade-plus.
Channeling Mike Myers, Jason Vorhees, or that fisherman from I Know What You Did Last Summer, Love is a slasher who has been holding onto that dagger for a while now. He’s spent the last two years saving his most ruthless performances for Duke. There have been diabolical villains in Duke-UNC lore, but Love’s may be the most interesting.
Two years ago, Love’s affinity for Duke ran deep. His dad told Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2020 that “Caleb’s dream school was Duke.” He added, “Coach K came here, we thought it was going to happen, and then, it didn’t happen.”
The Heels sophomore point guard only committed to UNC during his senior year at Christian Brothers High School, where he was coached by Jayson Tatum’s father, after Duke secured a commitment from Jeremy Roach.
“Before Jeremy committed, they were just telling me that they wanted me to be the point guard for them, get my teammates involved and come in and compete to win for a national championship.” Love told TheDevilsDen.com’s Steve Clark after Roach committed in May 2019.
Love was the No. 2 point guard in their 2020 class according to 247 Sports, which ranked Jeremy Roach fourth. The only point guard ahead of Love was Cade Cunningham. ESPN’s hoops recruiting database considered Love its 18th best recruit, and Roach was slotted at 19th. When Roach was offered by Duke two years before he could enroll and committed one year later, Love opted to don the Carolina blue.
Coach K has unequivocally been the greatest college hoops recruiter of the past 40 years. However, the point guard he spurned being the difference between Duke advancing to a storybook ending and UNC prevailing as a historic 8-seed, is an indelible dent in the lore of Krzyzewski which will be impossible to buff out, along with Roach’s eight points and 18 percent shooting.
Love’s season-high as a freshman came in a win over Duke. Two out of his three highest-scoring games have now come against Duke. On Feb. 6, 2021, he erupted for 25 points in his first win against Duke. He’d been hovering around averages of 10 points per game and shooting 35 percent from the field up to that point. That night he shot 56.3 percent from the field and 4-of-5 behind the arc. He did it again a month later, scoring 18 on 50 percent shooting and dished seven assists in UNC’s 18-point victory.
The only blemish on Love’s record against Duke was the measly eight points he scored during a Feb. 5 loss in which he drained only 3 out of 5 attempts and shot 1-for-5 from deep.
He responded by crashing Coach K’s home finale celebration. Love scored 22, propelled by his perfect 12-for-12 shooting at the free-throw line, but their total obliteration of Duke overshadowed him. Love’s 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field were even more remarkable when weighed against the burden Armando Bacot’s struggles inside placed on him to excel.
No matter what Caleb Love does from this point forward, he’s a folk hero for UNC’s half of the Duke-UNC divide and etched in the memories of Duke fandom as a terror.