April 17, 2024

DURHAM, N.C. — Caleb Love didn’t offer more than a passing glance at Duke‘s famously rowdy students hurling insults his way as he took the court for pregame warmups Friday night.

He had plenty to say by the final horn.

The 6-foot-4 guard who had played for hated Blue Devils rival North Carolina — and had a huge role in ending Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching career while with the Tar Heels — started waving his left hand in an emphatic goodbye to the irate fans after another win in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

This time, however, it came with No. 12 Arizona as a transfer, though with plenty of emotion all the same.

“Obviously it was on my mind for a little minute,” Love said after the Wildcats beat No. 2 Duke 78-73. “As soon as I had seen they were on the schedule, my eyes got bigger. But we came in and handled business. That’s all that matters.”

Maybe so for the Wildcats as a whole, with third-year coach Tommy Lloyd’s bunch making a strong statement by dominating the glass and coming up with multiple key plays down the stretch in the win. But for Love, it was an early mile marker in his new basketball journey out west after playing his first three seasons with UNC.

It was Love who offered the dynamic shot-making ability in 2022 that led the Tar Heels to a stunning takedown of Duke in Krzyzewski’s emotional final home game. One month later, Love hit the dagger 3-pointer in the final minute among his game-high 28 points as the Tar Heels took down the Blue Devils in the Final Four in New Orleans and sent Coach K into retirement.

But he left North Carolina as part of the Tar Heels’ roster overhaul following last season’s flop and ended up at Arizona, which had a home-and-home series with Duke on the books.

That brought him right back here, two games into his Arizona career, to play in a building teeming with hostility directed his way long before the opening tip.

“Hey Caleb! You’re a disgrace!” one fan yelled as Love took pregame shots with headphones on to tune them out.

Another shouted: “[Expletive] you, Caleb!”

Love was ready for it all. He didn’t run from the past, even writing “Tar Heel 4L” (for life) on the heel of his shoes.

“I’ve been in environments like this,” he said. “I’ve played in big-time games, big-time environments. So I’m kind of used to it. I wanted to come into this game, and I didn’t want to make it about me. I wanted to make this about my team.”

He finished with 11 points and didn’t shoot well (3-for-10) while committing four of his six turnovers after halftime. But he made his presence felt. At times he looked as if he was tuning out the sometimes ear-ringing intensity. At others, he leaned into the spiteful vibe.

Love closed the first half by bringing the ball up court and launching a leaning long 3-pointer that banked in at the buzzer. Love immediately turned toward defender Tyrese Proctor and jawed at him with a profanity.

He came through in the final minute too, as Arizona finally pushed ahead. His pass set up Keshad Johnson‘s whistle-drawing layup for the go-ahead three-point play with 46.8 seconds left. Love then hit four free throws during Arizona’s 6-for-6 showing at the line in the final 20 seconds.

The last two came with 4.6 seconds left to keep the margin at three, a bit of a throwback to Love hitting clinching late free throws in the Final Four win against Duke.

“I’m not a scripter,” Lloyd said. “I just try to coach the game as it plays out in front of me. I’m not surprised he made them. I told him he deserved that moment.”

Ultimately, Love even got two of them.

The Wildcats punctuated the win with a turnover leading to Love pitching ahead to KJ Lewis for a dunk as time expired. Love immediately screamed and locked his arms in a flex, and the Wildcats celebrated the win.

But officials reviewed replays and added 0.6 seconds to the clock, forcing a final play that allowed Love the chance for a calmer farewell with those emphatic waves.

Soon he was headed to the locker room, savoring a third win in four tries at Cameron.

“We all know what it is,” Johnson said. “We all know he was once a Tar Heel and the rivalry they’ve got between them. We knew this coming in, and we just had to have his back.”

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