Caleb Love does just enough to help seal Arizona’s victory over Duke in return to Durham

DURHAM, N.C. — It was about as subtle as a punch to the gut: Caleb Love walking — no, strutting — down the midcourt line of Cameron Indoor Stadium, head cocked slightly to the right, left hand raised, waving, mouthing the same line over and over to a mob full of unimaginable vitriol: Bye-bye.

How sweet must that have felt? How satisfying?

Put yourself in Love’s shoes. You’re 22 and playing your first season at Arizona, far from your St. Louis hometown but further still from Chapel Hill, N.C., your college home for the past three seasons. At UNC you were a hero, then humbled, then heckled away from North Carolina altogether. Out to the desert, by way of a temporary layover in Ann Arbor, Mich. You’re so excited about a new opportunity, to leave all that old stuff behind you, and then you check your new Arizona schedule.

Game 2: against Duke — your biggest former rival, the school whose legendary coach you retired in the 2022 Final Four — back in Durham.

“Obviously, it was on my mind for a little,” Love said Friday. “Soon as I’d seen that they were on the schedule, my eyes got bigger.”

Now try to compartmentalize all that — your extended history with Duke, the pregame boos and obscenities from the Cameron Crazies, the stakes of the best college basketball game of this young season — and actually perform. Not easy. For most players, probably not possible.

And frankly, in No. 12 Arizona’s 78-73 win over No. 2 Duke, Love was just fine. Not exceptional. The senior guard finished with just 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting and only one made 3-pointer in five tries: a banked-in, borderline half-court heave as the first half was ending, a shot that even he conceded was “a bulls— shot.”

But you know what Love did do?

Just enough to help Arizona notch what will arguably be the best nonconference win of the season.

And though it’s only one game, in the first week of a six-month sport, it’s impossible for a performance like Friday’s not to change the national perception. The reality? The Wildcats are once again right where they’ve been in each of their first two seasons under Tommy Lloyd: right in the thick of the national title picture. Although, good luck getting Lloyd to acknowledge that or even feed into the fringe of the idea.

“Listen, my goal is to win all our games in March and April,” the 48-year-old coach said. “I don’t have a November little checklist on my thing, to win all my games in November. So I’m glad we’re winning — it’s better than losing — but nothing more than that.”

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Tommy Lloyd leaves Cameron Indoor Stadium following No. 12 Arizona’s win over No. 2 Duke. (Brendan Marks / The Athletic)

If that sounds somewhat reserved, well, then consider the context. For as good as the first two years of the Lloyd era have been — and they have been excellent, by any conventional standard — they have something disappointing in common: their ending. Lloyd won 61 games his first two seasons, more than any other coach in Division I men’s basketball history, as well as two Pac-12 tournament championships and one regular-season title. But in the NCAA Tournament? A Sweet 16 loss to Houston in his debut campaign and, last year, the more painful follow-up: a first-round upset loss as a No. 2 seed to No. 15 Princeton.

Questions, naturally, ensue. Not unique ones, but those familiar to high-profile, highly successful coaches who seemingly come up short in March: Matt Painter, Mark Few and so on. But two seasons into his Tucson tenure, Lloyd was “officially” included on that list — and that was before he lost his All-American big man, and last season’s leading scorer, Azuolas Tubelis.

So, Lloyd’s counter?

Supplement his remaining core — namely big man Oumar Ballo, who had 13 points and five rebounds Friday; point guard Kylan Boswell, who reclassified up last season and got some “seasoning,” as Lloyd put it; and do-everything wing Pelle Larsson, who had a third of Arizona’s six made 3s against Duke — with a talented three-man transfer class: Love, forward Keshad Johnson (from San Diego State) and guard Jaden Bradley (from Alabama).

The common denominator with that trio? Big-time experience, exposure and success in spite of them.

And in Love and Johnson, especially, Lloyd found a duo with national championship game experience. Would you look at that? Imported postseason success, the very thing his team and program were lacking.

Friday, that composure was on display, in a game that had the feel of the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.

“This,” Johnson said, “(is) a March Madness mentality right here.”

And frankly, it was from the opening jump. Arizona imposed its will almost immediately, but nowhere more evident than on the glass. Among Ballo (7 feet, 260 pounds), freshman Motiejus Krivas (7-2, 260) and Johnson (6-7, 225), the Wildcats almost doubled the Blue Devils in rebounding in the first half, 29-15. Between that and Duke’s poor shot selection — seven of its first 11 shots were 3s, with only one make, courtesy of Kyle Filipowski — Arizona had no issue building a sizable lead, even before Love’s bank shot made it an eight-point halftime lead.

In the second half came Duke’s counterpunch. Filipowski, a preseason All-American, turned on takeover mode, scoring 14 of his game-best 25 points after intermission. Between him and senior Jeremy Roach — who chipped in 17 points and clutch shot after clutch shot — Jon Scheyer’s Blue Devils came roaring back, even regaining the lead they hadn’t had since the game’s early minutes. “We told our guys, ‘You’ve got to be able to take punches,’” Lloyd said. “We can’t have a glass jaw.”

So in one timeout, Lloyd assembled his team and delivered a simple decree: Play with poise. Coach speak, really, the same phrase that’s been uttered in middle school gyms. But then he followed it up with a question: “Why am I saying that?”

Answers flew at him.

We’ll make good decisions.

We won’t panic.

We won’t let the crowd get in our heads. (Official attendance: 9,314 — and one Mike Krzyzewski, sitting courtside, something he’s done only once since retiring.)

Good responses, Lloyd told them, but wrong ones.

“I said, ‘No. Play with poise because you’re the better team. Trust that you’re the better team over the course of 40 minutes,’” he said. “I knew it would be a small margin, but I really feel like that.”

And his team had the chance to prove it late. With 1:11 to play, Roach missed a pull-up jumper, but Filipowski grabbed the offensive rebound, putting it back through contact for an and-1 layup. He made the free throw, too, giving Duke a critical 70-69 advantage. But Lloyd’s team never panicked. Instead, it simply played the same balanced offensive system that’s brought the Wildcats back to the pinnacle of the sport, one rooted in ball movement and spacing and simple cuts — cuts like the one Ballo made to the basket with less than a minute to play before kicking the ball out to Love at the top of the key. Love drove and started to lose his balance — the Cameron Crazies at about this moment began frothing at the mouth, ready to hiss at another heinous Love mistake — before he did something un-Love like:

He passed.

“You know, maybe at one point, not having the best game, he would have went in and dunked it himself,” Love’s father, Dennis, said. “But he’s, like, happy to give it up to K.J. and let him finish it off like that.”

That finish was Johnson catching Love’s bounce pass in the dunker spot and going straight up with a shot. (No unnecessary dribbles, right?) The San Diego State transfer fell back as his shot floated up in the air, then down through the netting. Count it, with the foul on Filipowski.

A free throw later, Arizona had a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

When Tyrese Proctor pivoted in the post on Duke’s subsequent possession and was called for a travel in doing so, it all but sealed the win. All it would take was some clinching free throws — and a willing player to attempt them.

Mr. Love, step right up.

Love took Arizona’s next two free throws before Duke fouled Larsson, sending him to the line as well. But with five seconds left, Proctor fouled Love on Arizona’s inbounds, sending the former UNC star back to the line with a chance to clinch.

“I’m not a scripter; I just try to coach the games that play out in front of me,” Lloyd said. “I’m not surprised he made them, you know. And I told him he deserved that moment.”

Seconds later, Love stole Duke’s final, desperate inbounds throw, passing it to freshman KJ Lewis for a definitive dunk, the kind of exclamation point the game deserved. But the true deciding sequence — the play that changed the game — was Love’s pass to Johnson and Johnson’s timely finish. Coincidence it was those two, Lloyd’s pair of players with championship pedigree? Maybe. But also, it says something about the value of Love’s and Johnson’s experiences and how, maybe, a very good team needed only that little lift to get over the hurdle. Just take it straight from the source:

“I’ve played in big-time games, big-time environments, so I’m kind of used to it,” Love said. “I just wanted to come in this game — I didn’t want to make it about me; I wanted to make this about my team.”

And it was. Kind of.

But when the final buzzer sounded, something came over Love. That history with Duke, the hate spat in his face all evening, isn’t easy to swallow. So, you wave. You smile. You get the last laugh — really this time.

Then you say goodbye. In this case, likely for good.

Love did not win this game for Arizona single-handedly, but he also did not lose it. He did just enough. And in the process, despite all the swirling circumstances — some, one could argue, conspiring to make a mockery of him one last time on Tobacco Road — his Wildcats showed the nation what they’re capable of.

“The kid has been through a lot, man, but I’m glad he went through everything that he went through because it has made him a tenacious winner,” Dennis Love said. “And at the end of the day, people are gonna have to acknowledge he’s a winner. He’s been winning, and he’s going to continue to win, man.

“He is Caleb Love. Remember that.”

(Top photo of  Caleb Love waving goodbye to Duke fans after Friday’s win: Rob Kinnan / USA Today)

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