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UNC Basketball: How Christian Keeling’s timely scoring helped the Heels pull away against State

The graduate transfer’s hot shooting continued against State. This time it came at critical times.

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC’s seven-game losing streak came to an end on Tuesday, thanks to Garrison Brooks’ free throw shooting, Cole Anthony’s continued scoring steadiness, and N.C. State continuing to be N.C. State. Sure, Brooks put up 30 points. Yes, Anthony continues to show an improved grasp of the offense. It didn’t hurt that the Wolfpack continue to find ways to torpedo their season with Kevin Keatts at the helm.

All of that is true.

However, North Carolina needed another hero to secure their fourth ACC win of the season. Christian Keeling dutifully filled that void with timely shooting at all three levels of the court. It was a long road to this point, but the graduate transfer has been on a quiet tear the past seven games, averaging 12.3 points on 55.7% shooting. Most of that damage has been done from mid-range, but he’s also hit 47.1% (8-17) of his attempts from three.

Good video reviews have been sparse this year, but Keeling’s performance on Tuesday gives us a chance to look at his (and UNC’s) slowly evolving offense.

Keeling Jumper #1 (First Half)

Trailing early, Keeling grabs one of his seven rebounds and immediately pushes the ball in transition. Earlier in the season, he would have over-penetrated and forced a bad shot or turnover. This time he pulls up (kind of?) and drains it. Good shot? Maybe. Maybe not. For this team though, as long as it goes through the hoop, nobody is going to complain.

UNC trails 13-6, and are in the middle of a 9-0 run that would negate most of an early State lead.

Keeling Jumper #2 (First Half)

Now trailing 17-11, Keeling takes the assist from Cole Anthony for two more points. This curl from UNC’s secondary has been missing this season, but Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, and Justin Jackson all used it in recent years. It’s a classic Carolina staple.

Note Keeling flattening midway to the corner and then walking Braxton Beverly into Armando Bacot’s screen. Good patience from Keeling allows Bacot to set the screen well below the foul line, making space for the curl. D.J. Funderburk can’t help too much on Keeling or Bacot would be all alone under the basket.

Spacing, patience, and execution cuts State’s lead to 17-13.

Keeling Lay-up #1 (First Half)

After getting another defensive rebound, Keeling gave the ball up to Cole Anthony and filled in the lane down the wing. Bacot does solid work of getting Funderburk on his hip and pushing him up the lane. Keeling, again, flattens to the corner.

The combination of Bacot’s work in the post, Keeling’s positioning, and Markell Johnson not wanting to play any defense whatsoever, leaves a wide-open baseline. Keeling recognizes it, attacks hard (but under control), and finishes at the rim. This mix of aggression, spacing, and patience is what has been missing for large parts of the year.

UNC trails 17-15. The Heels trailed until the final minute of the first half, but Keeling’s points came at key times, helping an offense that has badly needed a third scoring option. He finished the first half with 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 assist.

Keeling Jumper #3 (Second Half)

Another mid-range pull-up in transition. When you’re hot, you’re hot. Doesn’t hurt that a little confidence is one helluva drug.

This was good recognition by Brooks on the outlet pass. Keeling made it easy by running his lane before Brooks even really turned around to survey his options. This broke a 54-54 tie, started a 13-2 run, and gave the Heels a lead they never relinquished.

Keeling three-pointer #1 (Second Half)

After another defensive rebound by Keeling, the Heels eventually set-up in the half-court. Anthony and Keeling give some dummy motion on the far side, as Black hit Brooks at the foul line. Justin Pierce slides to the corner, and Keeling moves back to the wing.

The key here? Three Heels are outside the three-point line with just Brooks inside the paint. State, unlike most teams this year, extends their defense to match-up.

The second part of this sequence is Keeling simply making a play. After a quick retreat dribble by Keeling, Pierce clears out. This leaves Keeling alone on the wing and Markell Johnson isolated. Keeling takes one hard semi-hesitation dribble to the right, indicating he’s setting up to drive on a now cleared out right side of the court.

Instead, Johnson takes two steps back leaving just enough room for Keeling to fire away. These are the shots Keeling was not taking during the first half of the year. Or, when he did, they lacked the confidence he’s displaying now.

Heels increase their lead to 59-54.

Keeling three-pointer #2 (Second Half)

After an Anthony steal and dunk and lay-up by Funderburk on the other end, UNC held a 61-56 lead. With momentum swinging back the Heels’ way, this is great awareness by Cole to find the hot hand.

State’s Johnson is now guarding Cole, and playing three steps off to defend against the drive. This allows the UNC point guard to reach the elbow and draws Keeling’s new defender, Beverly, away from the wing to help. Keeling shadows Cole by sliding down the sideline with hands up, ready to catch and shoot.

Cole delivers a perfect pass to Keeling’s chest, and in one smooth motion the graduate transfer gives UNC holds a 8-point lead. N.C. State calls a timeout, but it’s not enough to stop a Garrison Brooks 3-point play on the Heels’ next possession.

That concluded the 13-2 run, and UNC held on the rest of the way. When they were threatened, Keeling once again stepped up.

Keeling Lay-up/Jumper (Second Half)

A five point scoring spree by D.J. Funderburk in 47 seconds, reduced a nine-point to 73-69 lead with 2:30 remaining. That time and score situation isn’t conducive to sitting on the ball, but a quick, poorly selected shot can be equally debilitating.

Judging by Roy’s reactions after Funderburk completed a three-point play with a made free throw, the only option was to attack. Keeling obliged that, uh, “request.” He gets the ball past half court, takes three dribbles, and awkwardly shoots with his right while floating to the left.

No need to focus on the “what-if” that certainly would have ensued if he missed. He didn’t, and the Funderburk-led scoring explosion came to a halt.

It’s been a frustrating season, and Keeling has had his share of high and low moments. The past few weeks, however, he has turned into the productive wing that many hoped for before the season. That steady improvement culminated last night in a season-high 16-points. His seven rebounds were his second highest total. For more background on Keeling’s upward trajectory, check out RL Bynum’s most recent article from the aftermath of Tuesday’s victory.

This season may require a miracle for a post-season run, but at least Keeling did his part in helping lead UNC to their 13th regular season sweep of N.C. State under Roy Williams.

That is something worth celebrating.