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What comes after a 'Miracle'? North Carolina hoping to avoid letdown after Final Four elation

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NEW ORLEANS — Not long after his team’s thrilling victory over Duke on Saturday night, North Carolina guard R.J. Davis answered a FaceTime call.

A friend flipped his phone around to show Davis the sea of Carolina blue-clad fans who stormed Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.

Some students hung from traffic light poles. Others shot fireworks into the air. The victory celebration was so loud that Davis had to shout to be heard over the din.

“Everyone was screaming at me, calling my name, taking pictures of my face on the phone,” Davis said. “It was great to see. It gave me goosebumps, honestly.”

The day after the highest-stakes win in the 102-year history of college basketball’s most iconic rivalry, North Carolina now must fight the temptation to feel satisfied with the legacy-cementing victory they’ve already achieved. After vanquishing Duke and sending Mike Krzyzewski into retirement with a loss, the Tar Heels’ new challenge will be gearing up for the game after The Game.

North Carolina Tar Heels players react after defeating the Duke Blue Devils 81-77 in the Final Four on Saturday. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
North Carolina Tar Heels players react after defeating the Duke Blue Devils 81-77 in the Final Four on Saturday. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The last obstacle standing between eighth-seeded North Carolina and an improbable national title is a Monday night matchup with a 33-win Kansas team that is formidable, experienced and rested. Whereas the Tar Heels summoned every shred of energy and strength they had to survive Duke on Saturday night, the Jayhawks coasted to an 81-65 victory over shorthanded Villanova in the first leg of the men's Final Four doubleheader.

To a man, North Carolina players and coaches said they aren’t finished yet, that their goal is to leave New Orleans with more than rivalry bragging rights.

“We want to win a national championship and to actually be able to hang up a banner,” North Carolina center Armando Bacot said.

And yet those who have been through similar seismic semifinal wins caution that it’s not always so easy to recharge and refocus.

How 'Miracle on Ice' team, others handled big moment

The 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team often has to correct a wrongful assumption. People tend to forget that the “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union didn’t come in a gold-medal match.

With only one off day in between the historic victory over the Soviets and the chance to clinch a gold medal against Finland, U.S. coach Herb Brooks used a hard practice to deliver his players a message. Recalled team captain Mike Eruzione on Sunday: “Herb skated our asses off to make us realize that we hadn’t yet met our goal. We still had the biggest challenge ahead of us — to win the whole thing.”

While the U.S. trailed Finland 2-1 after the second period, the Americans responded with three third-period goals to secure a gold medal. Eruzione says had his team stumbled against the Fins and settled for silver, its victory over the Soviets wouldn’t be remembered so fondly.

“I always tell people now, I’d hate for someone to come up to me and say, ‘What a great game against the Soviets. If only you’d beat Finland to win the gold medal,’” Eruzione told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the same mindset North Carolina players should have. Twenty years from now, they don’t want people coming up to them saying, ‘God what a great game against Duke. If only you could have beaten Kansas.’”

The Notre Dame women’s basketball program might have the most similar recent experience with the challenge that the North Carolina men are now facing. In 2011, the Irish stunned Maya Moore-led UConn in the national semifinals, only to fall to a less-heralded Texas A&M team in the national title game.

“I think we thought we had already played the final,” former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw told Yahoo Sports on Sunday.

North Carolina's Caleb Love (left) and Leaky Black celebrate their team's win over Duke in the Final Four on Saturday. (Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
North Carolina's Caleb Love (left) and Leaky Black celebrate their team's win over Duke in the Final Four on Saturday. (Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

So the next time the Irish were in the same position, McGraw did everything she could to guard against complacency.

When Notre Dame again toppled archrival UConn in an overtime classic in the 2018 national semifinals, McGraw harped on the fact that her team’s job was not done. Then-assistant coach Niele Ivey even put the Irish players through an off-day exercise that forced them to visualize what it would look and feel like to beat Mississippi State for the championship the following night.

“You would think, ‘It’s the national title game! Of course I’m going to be ready,’” McGraw said. “But the semifinal game feels so much bigger when you’re playing your archrival. You feel like, 'God, that should have been the final, and now we have another game? I’m exhausted.’ So keeping the players fresh mentally is North Carolina’s biggest challenge.”

Will North Carolina avoid a letdown?

Forgive Hubert Davis if he doesn’t believe he should have to do anything special to refocus his team for Monday’s title game.

“​​If you're not motivated for that, you shouldn't be playing,” Davis said.

When Davis was a junior at North Carolina, his heavily favored Tar Heels team crumbled in the national semifinals against less-talented Kansas. Instead of facing Duke for the 1991 national title, Davis and his teammates watched from home as the Blue Devils outclassed the Jayhawks to secure Krzyzewski’s first championship.

On Sunday, Davis revealed that until 2017, when he won his first national title as an assistant on Roy Williams’ staff, he would watch his team’s 1991 loss to Kansas “at least once every year.” The sight of Rick Fox missing 17 of 22 shots or Dean Smith getting ejected in the final minute would often leave him teary-eyed.

“Playing at Carolina, the thing, for me, that I always wanted was to cut down those nets as a player,” Davis said. “And we were so close but we weren't able to have that experience. That was the toughest loss that I've ever experienced in my entire life.”

When North Carolina clobbered Saint Peter’s seven days ago to cement a spot in New Orleans, an emotional Davis did his best to convey to his players how special an achievement that was. The 12-year NBA veteran told the Tar Heels, “That was my finest moment as a basketball player, just being part of the Final Four.”

Now North Carolina is one win away from a championship, one win away from achieving what Davis couldn’t during his playing days.

Will they be locked-in and ready? Or will they have trouble refocusing so quickly after the win over Duke that meant so much to Tar Heels fans in Chapel Hill and beyond?

“It was definitely a satisfying win — UNC versus Duke, the first Final Four matchup,” R.J. Davis said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to get too satisfied yet. We’ve got one more win to go to win the national championship.”

North Carolina's R.J. Davis looks on in the second half of his team's win over Duke in the Final Four on Saturday. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
North Carolina's R.J. Davis looks on in the second half of his team's win over Duke in the Final Four on Saturday. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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