Wednesday night, the North Carolina Tar Heels, powered by Armando Bacot and Caleb Love, overcame a two-point halftime deficit to defeat Wake Forest 80-73.
Although the first half had much to be desired for UNC, the team was solid in the second half, and can build upon those successes in the upcoming games.
Below are three things learned from Carolina’s seventh straight home victory versus Wake Forest.
A Tale of Two Halves
Once again, the Tar Heels had a sluggish start.
In the first half, UNC shot 38.7 percent from the floor. Granted, this shooting percentage has been par for the course during most of ACC play. Carolina also coughed the ball up nine times in the first half, allowing the Deacs to convert those into 15 points.
In the second half, the Tar Heels turned it on. UNC started the second stanza with a 14-2 scoring run. Once Love hit a free throw at the 17:01 mark to take the lead, the Tar Heels did not allow the Demon Deacons to retake it. Even when WF sank a three-pointer at the 10:12 mark to briefly tie it up, a Bacot layup 18 seconds later gave UNC the lead for good.
Those two players, Bacot and Love, led the way for UNC in the second half. Bacot was an efficient 6-7 from the floor with two free throws, and Love shot 4-8 from the field, adding four free throws.
Bacot finished the game with 18 points, while Love led all UNC scorers with 20 points. Leaky Black continued to be a stat sheet stuffer, contributing six points, five assists, four rebounds, and two steals in the second half. He finished with eight points, eight assists, six rebounds, and two steals.
WIth two shooters carrying the load for Wake Forest, the Tar Heels did a better job defensively in the second half. However, there is still room for improvement, especially from beyond the arc.
Love’s Best Performance
Without a doubt, this was Love’s best overall performance of the season. He was 7-12 from the floor, including 2-3 from three and 4-7 from the charity stripe.
His 20 points were a career high, and his 58.3 shooting percentage was his best by far. Love had not broken the 50 percent threshold all season, and his shooting percentage against Wake was over 30 percentage points higher than his season average.
The most important statline from Love’s game last night, however, was his free throws. On its face, 4-7 from the free throw line is nothing to get excited about if glancing through the boxscore, especially for one of the best free throw shooters in the ACC.
However, in the five games since Love went 5-5 at the line against NC State on December 22, 2020, he has gone 2-2 from the free throw line. That's right, just two free throw attempts in five games.
Love has been struggling with his shot lately. More important than the points he scored against Wake Forest was the manner in which he scored them--here's an example:
Love had dunks on two consecutive plays in the second half. On the first, Love made a steal, dished it to Black, and Leaky gave it back to Caleb for the transition slam. After Wake Forest made a couple of free throws on the ensuing possession, the Tar Heels broke the full court press in some of the best transition basketball by UNC in a long time. Once again, Love finished with the slam dunk, this time assisted by Bacot. This contrasts with what Love did after a steal in the first half, where he took it up himself and ended up taking an awkward, contested runner in transition as he tried to avoid contact, which was more emblematic of what he had lapsed into doing before this game.
Love is taking better shots, getting more aggressive, and is now finding the bottom of the net. This is good news for the Tar Heels.
Finishing at the Rim
After the first possession of the game for UNC was a missed three, the Tar Heels had six straight possessions of getting it inside. Even though Carolina was feeding it inside, they just could not finish. UNC had another poor shooting half, and were beat in the frontcourt against a team in which they had, at least on paper, a size and talent advantage.
At the half, Wake Forest held a 12-10 points in the paint advantage, and were outrebounding UNC by a 20-17 margin. As a quick reminder, coming into the game Wake Forest ranked 309th in the nation in average rebounds per game. North Carolina was 3rd in the nation in average rebounds per game, including the highest average offensive rebounds per game in college basketball.
After halftime, there were some adjustments for the paint.Bacot had two straight touches early in the second half that set the tone for the rest of the front court. He was more consistent, keeping the ball high while powering to the rim.
It was nearly five minutes into the second half until UNC regained the rebounding advantage.
Although they lost it for a bit later on the second half, the Tar Heels finished the game with a 38-36 advantage on the boards. The big difference in the second half, though, was points in the paint. In the second half, Carolina outscored Wake 26-8 in the paint.
And it was not just the big guys scoring near the hoop. In one of my favorite sequences of the game, at the 4:54 mark, Love went to the basket after his miss, got the rebound, went strong to the rim, made the bucket, got fouled, and finished the old fashioned three-point play. On the next inbound, R.J. Davis stole the ball, fed a no-look pass to Black, who dished it to Bacot for the two-handed slam.
Love, Bacot, Black, and Davis were aggressive in all the right ways, especially when scoring or passing to the inside. When the rest of the team can join the chorus, UNC will start to turn the corner.