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The Daily Tar Heel

Free throws and defense lift UNC men's basketball to sloppy win over Elon

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Sophomore guard Caleb Love (2) shoots a free throw at the game against Elon on Dec. 11 at the Dean Dome. UNC won 80-63.

Basketball is an unpredictable sport. 

Some nights, the basket can seem wide as a hula hoop. This was the case in the Tar Heels' last matchup against Georgia Tech last Sunday, when they shot 56.4 percent from the field.

Other nights, the net could look as small as a peephole – and Saturday was one of those nights.

One game removed from a red-hot shooting performance in Atlanta, the North Carolina men’s basketball team struggled to find the net early against Elon. In the first half of their 80-63 victory over the Phoenix, the Tar Heels shot just 29.4 percent from the field.

UNC improved its shooting in the second half – making over 50 percent of its shots after the break – but still finished with just a 39 percent field goal percentage on the night.

Despite the lack of offensive rhythm, the defense rose to the occasion. After four games of allowing opponents to score over 80 points per game earlier in the season, the Tar Heels have responded by holding teams to under 65 points in each of the last four games. 

“As good of a shooting team as we are, you are going to have nights where the normal shots that go in don’t,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “What has to be consistent is defense and I was very happy with our defensive effort.”

Against their second in-state opponent of the season, the Tar Heels showed out on the defensive end, collecting 12 steals from six different players and also swatting away three shots.

Another key factor to Saturday night’s victory was the efficient effort from UNC at the free throw line. After the Tar Heels struggled to get to the line against Georgia Tech and Michigan – having just 11 combined attempts in both games – they were more aggressive getting free shots against Elon, going 27-35 from the charity stripe.

During the five-day layover after their last win, getting to the line was a point of emphasis from Davis, and it ended up being a major factor in a game where shots weren't falling. 

“That was another point of emphasis, continuing to attack the glass and get to the free throw line because we didn’t do it that well in the Michigan and Georgia Tech games,” sophomore forward Dawson Garcia said. “We know if we handled them like that and we didn’t get to the free throw line very much in those games, we can be even better and that’s always a good sign.”

Weeks removed from its sloppy 89-72 loss against Tennessee in which the team had 13 turnovers, UNC was able to defeat Elon despite finishing with 16 turnovers on Saturday. 

The Tar Heels were far from perfect, but their aggression on defense and hunger to get to the line was enough to keep the momentum rolling as they head into a tough matchup against No. 4 UCLA next Saturday. 

To be one of the best teams in the country, you have to find a way to win the ones you typically shouldn’t — even with the unpredictability of basketball. And UNC found a way to make it happen in its fourth-straight convincing victory.

“We were kind of sloppy and we came out sloppy, but we have to win the ugly ones,” sophomore guard Caleb Love said. “I’m glad we came out with the win but we're not satisfied at all.”  

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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