When sophomore guard Caleb Love plays like a star, the North Carolina men’s basketball team reaches the height of its powers. That fact revealed itself when UNC routed Virginia at home on Saturday, 74-58.
Yes, Love’s statline will be overshadowed by junior Armando Bacot’s 20-20 game. In fact, his 16 points was only the third-highest on the team, behind Bacot’s 29 and Brady Manek’s 19.
But when the former five-star point guard from St. Louis makes his shots, he serves as the spark plug for UNC’s offensive barrages.
Love started out quiet against the Cavaliers, missing his first three-point attempt in the opening minute of the game. He picked up a steal and assisted Manek on a fast-break a few minutes later, then laid low until draining a stepback three off the dribble with four minutes left in the half.
Seconds later, Love got a steal and drove down the court, stopping on a dime and draining a jumper from the elbow. The five-point swing put UNC up 26-20 and forced a Virginia timeout.
Coming out of the break, the teams traded baskets. Love fed Bacot for a dunk and Virginia’s Armaan Franklin responded with a jumper. As the first-half clock ticked down to under two minutes, Love took the ball down the court and hit another, nearly identical three-point shot from the same spot on the court.
The Dean Smith Center crowd erupted as Love screamed and flexed in celebration.
“We were getting them to space out more and we got open shots, and really it was Mando down low and Brady stretching the floor out, so they couldn't really guard any of us,” Love said.
Love hit two more threes in the first eight minutes of the second half, each of them feeling as momentous as his previous shot. He cooled down after that, not scoring for the rest of the game, but continued to contribute with solid defense and efficient passing.
Beyond his five recorded assists, Love made a few hockey assists, passing to a teammate who assisted another for a score. With two minutes remaining in the game, Love sent a full court pass down to Manek on a fast break, who then tossed it behind his head for a Bacot jam.
“It’s kind of like that relationship with the QB and receiver," Bacot said. "And him being so unselfish and just taking his game up another notch, it has been great.”
UNC showed some of its best ball movement of the season despite Virginia’s slow, defense-oriented playstyle. Love’s five assists were tied with Manek for a team-high, and he only committed one turnover.
UNC is undefeated when Love scores at least 20 points. Although he didn’t reach that mark on Saturday, it was a combination of his scoring, defense and playmaking that made him so effective.
“There were a number of ways that Caleb had a terrific game. Number one, he led our team in assists,” head coach Hubert Davis said. "Of course, his ability to make shots is such a benefit to us, but I thought he had an outstanding game on the defensive end.”
Now, Love needs to figure out how to make his off-and-on performances more consistent.
Davis says much of that will come with him growing up as a ballplayer.
“It's a big difference between freshman guards and sophomore guards,” Davis said. “For Caleb, he didn't have the luxury of having a veteran point guard when he came in to kind of teach him the ropes. You know, he came in last year and we just gave him the ball and said, ‘You're in North Carolina, you're the point guard, make it happen.’”
Now, as a team captain averaging 15.6 points per game, Love will be relied on to bring it every game as his team ventures further into conference play. After the game, it seemed that he’s ready to accept that task.
“This game is a big win for us, and I'm proud of my team and I'm proud of all the coaches and for putting us in position, but there's no let up at all,” Love said. “We’re on to the next.”
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