WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.— Christian Keeling: a diamond in the rough.
It’s no secret that this is the worst season for the North Carolina men’s basketball team in years. The team is on track to finish with its worst record in 19 years and trending at the bottom of the ACC standings.
On Tuesday night, the Tar Heels shot 33.3 percent from the field in a 74-57 loss to Wake Forest. They lacked effort, enthusiasm and energy, evident as North Carolina trailed the Demon Deacons by almost 20 points going into the half.
“There’s been so many of them this year I can’t remember what kind of sense I had freaking yesterday,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Usually I can remember every game we lose and tell you all about it, but we haven’t come to play enough this year to make those a small number.”
To put it simply, the team “sucked,” according to guard Andrew Platek, on Tuesday night.
“Teams find ways to win games and it seems like we’ve just been finding ways to lose them,” he said. “That’s the most frustrating part.”
But while the team effort is lacking, there are still small gems that can be found in the loss. On Tuesday night, graduate transfer Keeling tied the team lead with 15 points, playing 31 minutes and shooting 50 percent on the floor.
“Christian is really picking it up,” junior forward Walker Miller said. “I’ve been extremely proud of everything he’s done recently. He had a rough start to the year, and he’s really picked it up recently. He started to bring us back a little bit, and he was a good spark in the second half for us.
“...The way he’s been playing the last couple nights and games have been with effort.”
And a few days prior, he shot 5-7 from the floor against Duke, hitting his usual midrange jumper consistently.
“He’s had more effort and has been playing with more confidence," Miller said. "His pull-up jump shot is his shot, and he’s been hitting those.”
Keeling led the Tar Heels by scoring 11 of their 31 points in the second half, not letting up despite what the scoreboard showed.
“We were down, so we had to be aggressive,” Keeling said. “We just try to bring energy and the main thing is we just tried to get stops on the defensive end. If I was open, shoot it.”
Coming into this month, fans wouldn’t have expected Keeling to be a standout during UNC’s last few games.
“It’s hard when your shots aren’t falling,” graduate forward Justin Pierce said. “You start second guessing yourself, second guessing ‘Am I good enough at this level?’ It’s really nice to see him back playing with his confidence and swagger out there.”
As North Carolina continues to figure out how to resurface from rock bottom, Keeling will be there, hitting his pull-up jump shot and finding ways to contribute to any potential turnaround in the rest of the regular season and the ACC Tournament.
And he's not changing his goals for the team as the postseason approaches.
“I expect to win national championships,” Keeling said, “and I’m not going to give up on that.”
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