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Sunday March 26th

Pete Nance's big night gives Tar Heels life heading into final stretch of regular season

UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (32) high fives junior guard Caleb Love (2) during a basketball game against Virginia on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. UNC won 71-63.
Buy Photos UNC graduate forward Pete Nance (32) high fives junior guard Caleb Love (2) during a basketball game against Virginia on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. UNC won 71-63.

Standing just steps removed from a boisterous group of students chanting his name, Pete Nance lifted his shoulders and breathed a sigh of relief.

Throughout the course of the season, the graduate transfer has been given a series of labels. First, he came from Northwestern to Chapel Hill as the supposed missing piece for a team ready to embark on its redemption tour back to the Final Four. Then, after months of struggling to knock down shots – including a recent five-game stretch that saw him make just one of his 18 attempts from deep – Nance became the scapegoat for a group on the verge of making history as the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the Big Dance entirely.

So naturally, just seconds removed from putting the finishing touches on a 22-point, four-block performance that made him the deciding factor in UNC's much-needed 71-63 win over No. 6 Virginia, Nance had every right to reveal the subtle grin that crept across his face. 

“I’ve just been waiting for the day I was gonna break through,” Nance said. “And I feel like today was that day.”

Even if the results haven’t always been there to back it up, Nance has been a creature of habit.

In his pregame routine, he said he likes to make “six, seven or eight shots in a row” to simulate a game-like environment before he takes the court for good. Saturday was no different, but against a trademarked Virginia pack line defense that blitzes ball-handlers and forces opponents to bury them from the perimeter, Nance knew the looks would be there if he found the right spots on the floor. 

On the team's second possession, he slipped to the left corner and drilled the first shot of the night. Several minutes later,  Nance ran the floor and spotted up on the left wing before nailing a triple that sent the crowd into a frenzy.

"Heading into this game, we said at the end of the day, we're going to have to be able to knock down some perimeter jump shots," head coach Hubert Davis said. "He started us off and he was really hot from three and I'm just really happy for him." 

With the final seconds of the first half ticking away and three triples already under his belt, Nance prepared to execute a dribble hand-off with Caleb Love. Instead, two Cavalier defenders cheated the exchange, leaving Nance open once again. 

By the time the ball twirled through the net as the horn sounded, North Carolina boasted a 16-point lead to cap its most dominant half of the season.

“He’s been working all year to get back to the place he wants to be in,” senior center Armando Bacot said. “When Pete’s aggressive and trying to look for a shot to score, it’s huge for us.”

After dominating on the offensive end in the first 20 minutes, Nance was thrust into a new role in the second when Bacot was sent to the bench with his fourth foul. As the Tar Heels' lead dwindled to single digits, Nance stepped in as the team's defensive anchor.

With 8:07 to play and the Cavaliers looking to attack the paint, Nance emerged from the weak side to thwart a shot away at the rim. The next trip down, he sent back two more. 

Despite usually being reserved when he takes the floor, Nance stayed back for a second to gather himself as he let out a passionate roar, seeming to unleash the emotions that have been weighing him down following each lackluster performance.

“Defense is something you can do if shots aren’t going in or if they are going in, so that was the main thing I was happy to do,” Nance said.

Playing in front of a large fanbase, Nance said, has come with its fair share of challenges. As an experienced veteran, he has learned the benefits of staying off social media and keeping a level mindset throughout the highs and the lows of a tumultuous campaign.

But he is still fully aware of the pressure and expectations of being a longtime pariah for a Blue Blood program looking to get hot at the right time. And a breakout performance like Saturday's might have been the only validation he needed to gear up for the final push.

"I'm the only new guy, so when you don't pick up exactly where you left off, I'm easy to blame," Nance said. "I've just tried to keep my head down and keep working, and I'm excited for the next one."  


@dthsports | 

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