PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Right before the start of the second half of UNC’s 73-66 Sweet 16 win against UCLA, graduate forward Brady Manek came out of the tunnel looking to build on his game-best first half.
The leading scorer at the time with 10 points, Manek walked around the court while his teammates took jumpers to get loose. He grazed his headband, reaching it to the back of his head and adjusting it at the front to hold back his red hair.
He made his way to the bench and took the first seat at the end of the bench near the scorer's table, sitting alone and looking up. The big screen in the middle of the Wells Fargo Center played his best plays from the first 20 minutes, highlighted by a thunderous one-handed put-back dunk that awed the crowd. It even got Manek himself jumping up and down in celebration.
The dunk was emblematic of his first half, as it was his first taste of action since his ejection midway through the second half against Baylor in the Tar Heels' Round of 32 matchup.
And while those scoring opportunities escaped him in the second half, his impact on the game was still felt.
Manek missed his first five shots of the period, and it visibly aggravated him. At one point, he even took his headband back off in response to that anger.
Head coach Hubert Davis pulled Manek — who played the entirety of the game to that point — out of the game at the 8:38 mark.
“He got a little frustrated in the second half because he missed a couple shots that he felt like he normally makes,” Davis said. “So we took him out and just gave him a little breather and let him collect his thoughts.”
To that point, Manek managed to make plays without even scoring. He remained active on the boards, earned a steal after deflecting a pass from UCLA's Tyger Campbell and made smart passes on the perimeter as well as inside to junior forward Armando Bacot.
But while his shot was not falling, North Carolina needed to find a way to stay in the game.
Initially, sophomore guard Caleb Love filled that void. He scored 27 of his 30 points – and five of his six 3-pointers – in the second half. He went unconscious, and took care of UNC’s scoring needs.
“I feel like that's the best part of my game, is not to lose my confidence level,” Love said. “And when I'm out there, I'm just in a mode, and that's what that was tonight.”
In the meantime, the rest of the Tar Heels were attempting to get Manek mentally back into the game. They tried lifting his spirits by telling him some jokes and helping him let loose a bit.
Love’s hot streak certainly helped UNC during Manek’s absence, but the Oklahoma transfer couldn’t be kept out for too long.
With just under seven minutes to go in the game, Davis looked to his right towards his bench, and without hesitation, shouted “Brady!” and motioned his hand towards his veteran to enter the game.
Down by two, Manek stepped onto the court with his hair tied back and his mind on advancing to the next round.
After a few scores from both teams, the game got down to the waning minutes. The Tar Heels, still down by two, needed a shot from a player other than Love to keep the team in the game. That’s when sophomore guard RJ Davis found an open Manek popping out to his left.
Without hesitation, he let it fly, and the ball sank in.
“It was one of those games,” Manek said. “I started off hot early, but these guys, they kept me up, they kept throwing me the ball, trusted me to shoot it.”
The shot only gave UNC a brief lead, but the timely basket was a reflection of Manek’s recent clutch performances. Against Duke, he hit a similar 3-pointer to extend the team’s lead to eight points late in the game. In both of the first two tournament games, his outside shot guided North Carolina during his time on the floor.
On Friday, he did more than just knock down jumpers. He even set an on-ball screen for Love on one of his heat-check threes late in the game, a shot that put UNC ahead by three with 1:03 to go.
But unlike in games past, it was on the defensive side of the ball where Manek gave North Carolina the game-sealing play.
He was matched up with forward Jamie Jaquez Jr. in the paint with the clock ticking down. Jaquez went for a falling-away jumper, but was heavily disrupted by Manek and forced into a contested miss.
After UNC hung on to win, Manek held his hands over his head, visibly exhausted. Though not reflected in his point total, each of his 38 minutes made a difference in the Tar Heels’ win.
“Any time Brady is on the floor, he impacts the game,” Hubert Davis said. “He's more than a jump shooter. He's a basketball player.”
Both on the boards and in the scoring column, North Carolina will continue to rely on Manek’s productivity as it tries to move on in the tournament and faces an Elite Eight matchup against St. Peter’s.
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