CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Caleb Love didn’t stay down for long.
When the UNC junior guard went up for a floater and was fouled by center Hunter Dickinson twelve minutes into Wednesday’s Jumpman Invitational bout with Michigan, Love came crashing down on the baseline. The 7-foot-1 Dickinson loomed over Love, his maize leg sleeve just inches away from the guard’s face.
Love shot to his feet. Words and shoves were exchanged. UNC senior forward Armando Bacot and Wolverine first-year guard Dug McDaniel quickly joined the brawl, resulting in a quadruple technical foul.
“Hunter was standing over me and I think he tried to step over me,” Love said. “I wasn’t going for it and neither were my teammates. Coach preaches (to) us to fight back.”
UNC then went on an 18-6 run to close out the first half and the Tar Heels never trailed again, pulling away for an 80-76 win. In a game defined by brutal physicality and emotional intensity, perhaps no sequence was more pivotal in establishing an offensive rhythm and unity for the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
Before the scuffle between Love and Dickinson, UNC had been struggling to consistently execute a half-court offense that could keep pace with Michigan’s dynamic scorer Jett Howard. Despite having elite defender Leaky Black draped all over him, the first-year guard drilled two 3-pointers to build an early Wolverine lead.
"Jett Howard is a really talented player and (Michigan) runs a lot of sets to get him open shots,” Bacot said. “Early on in the first half (Black) was really tough on himself, but we all told him he was playing great defense."
After the altercation, however, the Tar Heels appeared to play with a newfound energy and scoring identity. The run started with Bacot, who backed down forward Tarris Reed Jr. from the perimeter for an inside bucket.
On the very next play, junior guard RJ Davis found Love on the right wing in transition, who drilled the 3-pointer while being fouled to tie the game at 28-28. A few possessions later, Davis darted a pass inside to Bacot for an and-one layup.
“It kinda got us going,” RJ Davis said. “We were already on edge, but I think it just uplifted the fire of our team and kept it going. The mental was on our side, so we made a run from that.”
Something had clicked in the offense, most noticeably in the star trio of Bacot, Love and Davis. You could even see the synergy unfolding in the plays where mishaps were converted into opportunities.
As the crafty Davis uncharacteristically lost control of his handle while rushing a transition drive, he dove to the floor, batting the ball with his left hand to Love. Without missing a beat, Love scooped the ball up and exploded toward the rim, finishing with an off-foot layup.
After he watched his shot go in, Love skipped high in the air, jogging back on defense alongside Bacot with a smile on his face. By halftime, Davis had added two more contested threes to the scoring barrage, giving North Carolina a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Although the Wolverines made several short-lived attempts to retake control of the game in the second half, the Tar Heels kept going to either their anchor Bacot in the paint or their veteran backcourt tandem in Davis and Love. When the final buzzer sounded, the trio had combined for 63 of UNC’s 80 points.
"It's good for us when our back is against the wall and how we fight back," Love said. "As far as this group, we're battle-tested. Anything thrown at us, we're going to overcome it and we're going to go through it."
@dthsports | firstname.lastname@example.org
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