For Carolina alumni and fans, the city of brotherly love will forever be the city of Caleb Love.
The Tar Heels’ sophomore guard remains perhaps the most infuriating and thrilling player in all of UNC hoops history.
And his Friday night Sweet 16 performance is the prime example of why we sometimes curse him and then all cheer him on for the short duration of a basketball game.
Love opened the scoring with his first shot, a long three-pointer against UCLA in Philadelphia. This is usually a good sign for the sensationalist who shoots footage. But it was his only basket of a first half when he missed his next eight shots, including three three-pointers.
Eric Montross, on the Tar Heel Sports Network, verbalized what we were all thinking, saying, “The only good thing about being three points down at halftime is that we’re only three points down at halftime.”
The 31-28 score was UNC’s lowest half-point total of the season.
Carolina was frustrating against the smart, sharp-shooting Bruins, who would have made the late John Wooden proud of their play and getting the ball to the best shooters in the right places. Considering the Heels shot 35% and missed 10 of 14 from the arc and played the final four minutes without a foul-ridden RJ Davis, our own Rocky lately a three-point deficit seemed damn lucky .
Fast forward to the final minutes of a game that Carolina trailed dangerously for just 8:20 after falling behind midway through the first half, and we saw one of the greatest streaks of this season, or any season.
Despite ten lead changes, the Tar Heels were still trailing 64-61 with 2:08 to go on a Tyger Campbell layup from the Bruins. Love had already warmed up and scored 19 points in the second half to keep Carolina within striking distance.
Within 38 seconds he hit a bomb to the right of the sidelines and, after Armando Bacot helped by preventing the ball from going out of bounds, threw another straight out of the way to put his side firmly ahead. . Bacot’s tip and four free throws from Love and Davis capped the spectacular 12-2 run and sealed UNC’s 15th victory in the last 18 games, and the most of them all.
Love’s 27 second-half points were one shy of Charlie Scott’s still-legendary 28 to bail out the Tar Heels in the 1969 ACC Championship Game win over Duke, which at the time was more important than the NCAA title.
Hubert Davis, whose near-magical mystery came under fire on four Coach of the Year ballots, insisted Love locked himself in taking the ball into the basket for three layups before it does not get hot from the outside. He jokingly called Love’s ‘drives to nowhere’ at times, he used a nifty Euro step to dodge a UCLA defender for one of the baskets and found open lanes for both others.
Not only one of the most spectacular attacking outbursts, but also the most timely, Love came back from a first half to help Brady Manek’s jitters last 20 minutes. While only hitting 1 of 6 from behind the arc, Manek drained a big one to give Carolina a 61-60 lead and breathe more life into the rally.
Bacot committed his third foul early in the second half but played smart the rest of the way to finish with his 28th double-double of the season, tying him for the national lead in that category and leaving him a short by Tim Duncan. ACC record 29 in 1996-97. AB’s 15 boards led to a 43-28 rebounding advantage and a 19-6 advantage on second chance points.
After the Heels went 0-3 from the foul line in the first half, they converted all nine chances in the second, including RJ Davis’ all-important three after fouling on a missed three-pointer. The big four scorers tallied 69 of the team’s 73 points in UNC’s sixth straight win over UCLA and 17th straight against Pac-12 opponents.
Love’s 30 points is the third time a Tar Heel has climbed that plateau in an NCAA tournament game in Philadelphia. Lennie Rosenbluth had 39 against Canisius in 1957, as did Al Wood against Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the 1981 Final Four.
So their first Elite Eight game since Roy Williams’ last league season in 2017 will be a role reversal from what the underdog Carolina has used as fuel since Coach K’s last home game was ruined at the start. March. The opponent is Cinderella Saint Peter’s, Jersey City’s No. 15 seed who has about five guys wearing glass slippers. As the top seed, the UNC No. 8 will wear his home uniform for the first time since Marquette’s first-round loss.
A win would replicate Bill Guthridge’s 2000 team run to the Final Four from the eighth seed, beating No. 9 Missouri, top seed Stanford, Tennessee (4) and Tulsa (7).
And if the Tar Heels reach New Orleans (site of Dean Smith’s first NCAA title 40 years ago) where Duke or Arkansas would wait, they’ll be back in their baby blue uniforms that have taken them through most of this incredibly joyful journey.
And if it happens that way and results in Carolina’s first-ever NCAA tournament meeting with the Blue Devils, well, it’s going to be an awfully long week to noodle that one.
Featured image via Todd Melet
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