Former Duke, UNC players hype Final Four clash

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NEW ORLEANS — Former North Carolina guard Joel Berry II said he wishes he were lacing up his sneakers to play in Saturday’s “game of the century.”

“If you’re not hyped to play in this game, man, you don’t have a soul,” said Berry, the most outstanding player of the 2017 Final Four after carrying the Tar Heels to their last national championship.

Both Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina coach Hubert Davis have done their best to block out the noise of the national semifinal clash between the two rivals, with both locking in on the prize of a national title. It’s the first time the two blue bloods have met with these stakes – in the Final Four – in the history of the storied rivalry.

And former players for both schools are ecstatic.

“When I look back on my career, those games were some of the best memories that will always stay with me,” Berry said. “It’s the greatest rivalry in sports for a reason. Now it’s on the big stage with everything on the line. As a (former UNC) player, I’m looking at it like, how good it would be for the rivalry to play the villain again.”

Former North Carolina Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II.
Former North Carolina Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II.

The Tar Heels (28-9) first played that villainous role when they pulled off a huge upset on March 5, beating Duke by 13 points on its home court in a game filled with pageantry to honor retiring Krzyzewski in his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After the game, Coach K apologized to the crowd for the embarrassing performance.

“This is the biggest game in college basketball history,” said former Duke guard Jay Williams, an ESPN analyst, on a show this week. “The pie in the sky would have been Duke-Carolina in the national championship. This is the next-closest thing.

“The fact that North Carolina ruined Coach K’s senior night, his last season ever coaching, his last game ever at Cameron Indoor Stadium… They celebrated on the court. …There is nobody, as a Duke fan, that I want to see more in the Final Four than North Carolina.

“If we lose, we lose, but you can’t ask for a better opportunity as a Duke player.”

Discussing the Blue Devils’ mindset this week, Krzyzewski said, “You can’t go into it (thinking) rivalry or payback. We want to win a championship. If we go in with the other two things, we’re not going to win. The (rest) is stupid stuff. That means nothing. That’s what sport for fans is about. It’s not for coaches and players.”

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And yet, his former players are fans.

“It’s hard to believe that they’ve never played each other in a tournament game,” former Duke star Grant Hill said earlier this week on a Zoom call with reporters. The two-time NCAA champ will be calling the game Saturday on TBS. “But it’s also fitting that we get this treat as basketball fans, as broadcasters, to have these two great schools compete against one another in Coach K’s last run.”

ESPN NBA analysts JJ Redick, a former Duke star, and Vince Carter, a former UNC standout, debated the rivalry game this week in a TV segment.

“This rivalry is bigger than just, ‘Oh, we’re playing against Duke and see what happens.’ We want to win, point blank,” Carter said.

“I grew up an ACC fan, a Duke fan. Some of my best memories watching basketball growing up were Duke-UNC games, especially in 1998 when Duke came back to beat a Vince Carter-led UNC team,” Redick joked. “Getting to participate in this rivalry is the highlight of my career.”