The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday February 4th

Tight victory against Clemson gives UNC men's basketball a much-needed win late in season

UNC senior forward Leaky Black (1) makes a pump fake during a UNC men's basketball game against Duke in the Dean Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Duke won 87-67.
Buy Photos UNC senior forward Leaky Black (1) makes a pump fake during a UNC men's basketball game against Duke in the Dean Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Duke won 87-67.

Zooming out and looking toward the past, it’s strange to consider a nail-biting win over Clemson a major victory for the North Carolina men’s basketball team. 

And gazing your eyes forward a bit, it’s even stranger to consider it was a near-necessary win Tuesday. 

Late in the game, with few enough seconds to count on one hand, sophomore guard Caleb Love drove into the purple paint in Littlejohn Coliseum and dumped a pass off to graduate forward Brady Manek. Manek buried the layup, and a few moments later, the Tigers narrowly missed a would-be game-winner that sent the Tar Heels home victorious. 

As he has done for much of the year, junior forward Armando Bacot led the Tar Heels in scoring and on the glass Tuesday before fouling out with just over a minute to go with UNC in a one-point hole. 

But in the end, it didn’t matter — it was UNC 79, Clemson 77. It was all too important for a team with its postseason hopes hanging by a thread, nearly five weeks out from Selection Sunday. 

“It definitely showed a lot of growth in us, us not having a lot of depth at the forward position,” Bacot said. “Just for us to fight and stay in it, it was great and I’m honestly just glad we got out of here with a win.”

Tuesday was the second consecutive game with Bacot in foul trouble, after the junior picked up two quick fouls in Saturday’s 20-point blowout against Duke and was relegated to the bench for long stretches early on. 

Against Clemson, however, the problem didn’t become apparent until midway through the second half when a fourth whistle sent him to the bench for most of the crunch-time.

When the whistle blew for Bacot’s fourth, UNC was holding onto a narrow five-point lead and both teams were clicking offensively after a slow first half. 

Amid the ugliness — 34 fouls and 24 turnovers between the teams on the night — and without UNC's best player, a few unlikely players stepped up.

First, there was senior Leaky Black, North Carolina’s primary defender that usually spends his energy on the toughest assignment, who compiled a second-half box score consisting of 20 minutes played and 11 points on 4-5 shooting. 

“I can’t say enough about Leaky and the type of impact, the season he’s having for our team,” Head Coach Hubert Davis said. “Leaky continues to have an unbelievable season and I love coaching him, I’m really proud of him.”

Then, there was Love, who despite committing four second-half turnovers and struggling to create offensive cohesion as the primary guard, settled late in the game, creating havoc as an athletic force in the final possession and finding composure to distribute the ball to Manek on the final play. 

“I told him, keep your head up, you’re gonna make a big play,” sophomore guard RJ Davis said. “I’m proud of him, that’s my brother.” 

Despite the absence of Bacot — North Carolina’s leading scorer, rebounder and most efficient shooter on the season — the Tar Heels found a way to win in a moment where not only today’s result was on the line. 

UNC’s NCAA Tournament resume is flimsy and muddied. They’re 0-7 against teams in Quad 1 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, only twice has a loss been by less than 10 points and playing in a struggling ACC, there have been few opportunities for impressive wins. 

So, earning results like the one on Tuesday is paramount. The Tar Heels were listed as one of the last four teams in ESPN's most recent bracket projection. Clemson sits just outside of quad 1 in the NET rankings. 

So, sometimes you don’t have to beat the best. Sometimes, you just have to outdo the rest. And on Tuesday, down their most productive player in the biggest moments, the Tar Heels were able to do just that.

“I wish people would talk about how this group continues to bounce back,” Davis said. “I hope people can see and can be proud of these kids, and how hard they fight and how hard they compete and the consistency of them bouncing back every time they get knocked down.”

@zachycrain

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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