The North Carolina men’s basketball team had 13.3 seconds to avoid another embarrassing home loss and potentially save its postseason aspirations Monday against Syracuse.
Head coach Hubert Davis instructed the Tar Heels in the huddle to fire up the first open shot to pull them out of their 73-71 deficit.
That shot came to Caleb Love.
The sophomore guard was having a rough night, shooting 3-16 going into that play. But with nine seconds remaining on the game clock, he hoisted a deep 3-pointer with no hesitation.
“As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was good,” Love said.
And he was right. He buried it.
While Syracuse guard Joseph Girard III ruined the St. Louis native's claim to a game winner by converting a contested jumper in the final seconds, Love’s eight points in overtime helped the Tar Heels run away with a much-needed 88-79 victory.
Davis knew Love would be willing to step up when that open shot came.
“There’s very few guys that can make those shots and there’s very few guys that are willing to take those shots in those types of situations,” Davis said. “That’s one of many things that I love about Caleb."
In the first half, Love only had 5 points on 2-9 shooting and hadn't made another field goal until that 3-pointer. But no matter how many shots he missed, he was always ready and eager to take the next one. The context of the game changed nothing.
Just a few plays before his game-tying shot in regulation, Love drained a huge triple to give UNC a 70-69 lead before the Orange tipped the ball in on the next offensive possession.
“It was an off night for me, but I never lost my confidence,” Love said. “It never wavered.”
While some of the fans may have gotten more nervous when he took the shot, the coaching staff didn’t lose faith in Love, and they were rewarded them with a big-time bucket.
“I was happy for him,” junior forward Armando Bacot said. “I guess that just shows his toughness to be able to take that shot while struggling — That was kind of gangster, I can’t lie.”
A little over a minute into overtime, Love once again had the ball standing several feet away from the 3-point line. Instead of driving to the hoop, he popped a shot from that spot and nailed another massive triple forcing the spectators in the Dean E. Smith Center and the entire North Carolina bench to burst of their seats.
A few possessions later, Love had the ball right by the “Roy Williams Court” logo – the same spot he made the overtime 3-pointer.
This time, however, he drove to the paint, beat his defender and scooped a floater into the basket, despite taking an elbow to the body. He converted the and-one free throw and took away any hope the Orange had of a late comeback.
Love completed his night with 21 points – the second most on his team – and no turnovers. He may have had a tough first 36 minutes, featuring some poor shot selections and a few ugly misses, but he shook off his early slump and became the hero the Tar Heels desperately needed to clinch a double-bye in the ACC Tournament and to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Tonight was the full Caleb Love experience.
“I’m not worried about what my stats are," Love said. "I want to get the win. Whatever my team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
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