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Iowa State's Caleb Grill cooks Tar Heels' defense in UNC's first loss of the season

UNC junior guard Caleb Love (2) protects the ball from JCSU junior guard Cartier Jernigan (12) during the exhibition game against JCSU at the Dean Smith Center on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022. UNC beat JCSU 101-40.

For much of Friday night, it was a battle of the Calebs.

After trading shots to open the game, UNC junior guard Caleb Love gathered a tip-out with just under seven minutes remaining in the first half. He put the ball on the floor and immediately sized up Iowa State’s Caleb Grill.

Crossing over to his right, Love drove to the rim, stopped just before reaching the paint, and banked in a floater over Grill. Love turned and ran down the court, but not before reaching his hand down to motion that Grill was too small.

He might’ve celebrated a bit too soon.

In UNC’s matchup against Iowa State in the Phil Knight Invitational semifinal, Grill recorded a career-high 31 points off of seven three-pointers. His explosive performance — coupled with three late turnovers by senior forward Armando Bacot — clinched a 70-65 win for the Cyclones and handed the top-ranked Tar Heels their first loss of the season. 

“(Grill) is somebody percentage-wise, (who) wasn’t shooting the ball well coming into the game,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said. “But it really doesn’t matter — he was feeling it today.”

It wasn’t just Grill’s volume that proved deadly — it was the opportune timing in which the senior decided to strike. 

Down by seven points with under four minutes to go, Grill went to work. With a three-pointer in the corner, over the outstretched arms of Love, he brought the Cyclones within four points. 

“For Iowa State to come back, they needed to make plays and they did,” Davis said. “Caleb Grill’s three, he was hot the entire game.”

Following a dunk from Iowa State's senior forward Robert Jones and a UNC turnover, Grill found himself open again.

Despite a late, leaping close-out attempt by Love, Grill was able to tie the game at 61 points apiece on a near 28-foot bomb. 

As the ball went through the net — marking the Wichita, Kan., native’s seventh three-pointer of the night — Grill landed and held his staggered stance emphatically before turning in Love’s direction.

"He hit a lot of crazy shots," Love said. "A lot of shots that were over our hands and a lot of deep ones. It was tough (to defend) obviously because he was hitting a lot of tough shots."

One of Grill's toughest shots of the night came soon after he tied the game.

With a turnover by Bacot at the other end of the floor, the Cyclones quickly regained possession. 

After faking a hand-off to senior guard Gabe Kalscheur on the perimeter, Jones passed the ball to Grill and set a high screen. Unable to fight around it in time, Love found himself lagging behind as Grill launched another shot in his face — this time to take the lead, 63-61.

“They just made more plays than us down the stretch," Bacot said. "The guards made a lot of tough shots, we turned the ball over a few times. I don’t know, it just kind of slipped out of our hands.”

While it was hard to predict a performance of this caliber from a player who put up just five points in his previous outing, Grill’s success on Friday in the Cyclone’s set pieces should come as no surprise against the Tar Heels. Grill’s lights-out performance was largely due to the senior’s ability to shoot off a variety of screens and dribble hand-offs — something UNC has struggled to defend in the early stages of the season.

Love addressed these deficiencies on Thursday after giving up 12 three-pointers to Portland. On Friday, Love was forced to discuss the same topic once again — but this time, following a tough defeat.

"(Grill) played out of his mind," Love said. "Credit to him. We definitely have to be better on the defensive end, all around."


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Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.