RALEIGH — UNC's Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce have admitted they haven’t been at their best throughout the season.
But over three quarters of the way through the game against N.C. State, the North Carolina basketball team’s graduate transfers made a small, but crucial run in the Tar Heels' 75-65 win.
Keeling hit his first jumper of the game with 8:64 remaining. Then, he hit a second on UNC’s next possession. Immediately following that, Pierce hit his only shot of the night, swishing a 3-pointer from the corner.
While Keeling and Pierce have struggled for the Tar Heels this season, the seven straight points that North Carolina’s graduate transfers scored over just 1:19 of game time gave UNC a lead it would never relinquish.
“Coach just said ‘Be aggressive, if you’re gonna shoot the shot, then have the balls to make it,’” Keeling said. “They were open shots, they were good, quality shots.”
Pierce wasn’t available for post-game interviews, but junior forward Garrison Brooks offered up what the Tar Heels were thinking after the run.
“Keep the foot on the gas, keep being aggressive,” Brooks said. “We can’t afford to let up right now.”
N.C. State would cut the deficit to as little as four, but the graduate transfers' run gave them enough cushion to prevent giving up the lead. It's just a small portion of what Keeling and Pierce have done for UNC of late.
“We struggled for the majority of the season, but we know that these last games we need to contribute more so we can help us win on the defensive end and on the offensive end,” Keeling said.
They’ve done just that in UNC’s last three games.Pierce scored 15 points against Virginia Tech on Jan. 22, his highest total since he scored 18 against UNCW in November. Then, the duo scored nine points each against Miami en route to a blowout victory for UNC.
“I think it’s great,” Brooks said. “We need those guys to come in and play well and I think they’re playing up to their capabilities now. I think they’re more comfortable and playing more confident.”
If Keeling and Pierce continue to get more comfortable in a North Carolina jersey, the Tar Heels might be able to salvage what has seemed at times like a lost season. Their presence will need to be felt throughout the remainder of the year if UNC wants to make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid.
In the meantime, it’s all about having the right mindset for Keeling and Pierce.
“We just came to the conclusion that we just need to have fun and be ourselves,” Keeling said. “I think that’s what we’re doing these last couple of games, and it has shown.”
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