There were ghosts in the Superdome. It’s obvious, in retrospect, but there were definitely spirits lingering in the rafters of the huge stadium, some benevolent and some less so, but all alike watching the Final Four with rapt interest. There may have been an echo of the 20-point loss to Duke in Chapel Hill in the regular season, toying with fans’ expectations. There was definitely the rodential specter of the Coach K farewell tour gnawing at the already-frayed nerves of Tar Heels everywhere in the week preceding the Final Four. These ill omens hung heavy around that court in the middle of the sea of humanity, congregating around the bright spot of hardwood flooring amongst the sea of black plastic seats.
It wasn’t only the Superdome, though. As I watched the Heels get down six points, seven points, only to fight back each time, I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was sure the counter-punch would stall eventually, and it would be all the time the Blue Devils would need to send Carolina back to the southern part of heaven. When RJ Davis committed his fourth foul, a cold shiver ran down my spine. When Armando Bacot rolled his ankle, I felt a weight on my chest that is usually reserved for sleep paralysis. As the time drained away, a grain of sand through the hourglass at a time, I could’ve sworn the days of my life were numbered—and falling slowly. For a few hours on Saturday night, my living room was as haunted as the Superdome.
They weren’t all ill-intentioned spirits, though. In my office, a few steps from the living room where the ghosts were, there’s a framed picture of Michael Jordan’s shot against Georgetown—a framed memento of a famed New Orleans spirit. I like to think that, with the number of times that Coach Davis has invoked the memory of Coach Dean Smith, there was a bit of guidance from beyond as the game came down to the wire.
The players, to their credit, didn’t seem too bothered by the ghosts. The Iron Five bent but never broke, answering each and every question that the Blue Devils asked of them. Brady Manek spent most of the game fighting a lid on the basket (doubtless put there by some darker blue shade), but hit three triples in the second half that were each more important than the last. RJ Davis carried the team offensively through the first half, then played the last seven minutes of the game playing smart basketball and avoiding a fifth foul. Armando Bacot fought through an ankle roll that was hard to watch on the replay and hit big free throws down the stretch. Leaky Black played a Leaky Black game, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can think of for any basketball player; eight points, nine rebounds (six offensive, good for second-highest in the game behind Bacot), as well as opening scoring with a beautiful corner three to start the Heels on the right foot. And Caleb Love? Caleb Love was the exorcist.
In the aftermath of the game, after the clock hit zeroes and the living room had been sanctified by a dagger three and clutch free throw shooting, and after the ghosts had exited my body through my tear ducts, I had a little bit of time. The joy of being a fan is that we get to live in this pure glow until Monday night; we don’t have to worry about prep for Kansas or shootarounds to get our legs back under us to go play for a national title, so we can begin to process the monumental thing that happened.
With 26 seconds left on the clock, Caleb Love drilled a three over the outstretched hand of seven foot Mark Williams. The ACC defensive player of the year was too late in his challenge, and could only watch the dagger snap the net on its way through. The brightest lights in the college basketball world didn’t prove to be too bright for Love, but the brilliance of that shot drove lingering phantoms away from the Superdome. The Coach K Farewell Tour (feat, The Kids, Who It Has Always Been About) came to a screeching halt as free throws followed the path traced by that shot and seconds bled off the clock. The 1-1 regular season tie was broken emphatically, giving Coach Davis an eternal winning record against Krzyzewski and chasing the ghost of the 20-point early-season loss from the premises.
This shot was an echo (or an erasure, or an obliteration) of the Austin Rivers shot over Tyler Zeller, a ghastly heartbreak that the Tar Heels have been living with since Caleb Love was ten years old. That shot, though, didn’t end the exemplary career of Roy Williams. Nor did it end Carolina’s season. Interestingly, that season also ended in New Orleans, but Duke didn’t have the chance to have their hearts broken in the Final Four; instead bowing out to CJ McCollum and a 15th-seeded Lehigh in the first round. That year, Carolina progressed to the Elite Eight before falling to Kansas.
Come to think of it, maybe there are a few more ghosts yet to exorcise. Wear the blue shoes, Caleb.