It wasn’t pretty, but last night the Tar Heels earned a decisive victory over Elon, 80-63. There are various ways that the Heels have managed to pull off a win this season, but making 27 of their 35 free throws is a new one. They needed every single made free throw as well, because the Heels finished this game only making 39% of their field goal attempts after knocking down 56% of their shots against Georgia Tech. Not exactly ideal, but at the end of the day a win is a win, and Elon deserves a lot of credit for how well they defended UNC for 40 minutes.
Let’s go ahead and jump into three things that we learned from last night’s victory over the Phoenix.
Caleb Love’s dominant performance
While I personally do my best to avoid making comparions as much as I can, it’s hard to look at Caleb Love’s performance last night and not see a familiar Tar Heel’s shadow chasing him on the floor. Love had quite a performance against the Phoenix, finishing with 22 points, five rebounds, and an assist. He went 7 of 14 from the field, and made 57% of his three-point attempts, with a few of them being from NBA range.
While all of his numbers were amazing, they don’t tell the full story of Love’s night. It was pretty obvious as the game went on that Love knew he could dominate whoever Elon assigned to him, and the look that he had in his eyes was similar to another guy that wore #2, Joel Berry. We’ve been patiently waiting for a point guard that could put on Berry’s shoes and have as aggressive/dominating nights as he had, and Love now seems to be that guy. He was playing really well off ball screens, got steals and broke away for highlight-reel dunks, and made a lot of the right passes. Missed tomahawk dunk withstanding, Love was an absolute killer on the floor, and he will be incredibly hard for teams to stop in ACC play.
Winning ugly (and weird)
Every season, there is always a game that you can point to and say, “Ok, this team can win ugly games, which is great if this team wants to be successful.” Last year might not be the best example of that, but it’s safe to say that this year’s team is now certified in their ability to win ugly. Caleb Love aside, there wasn’t really anything pretty about this game, as I pointed out above when discussing their shooting percentage. However, they pulled it off, and not only was it ugly…it was kind of weird.
It’s a rarity to see a team both shoot a bunch of free throws, and also keep another team from shooting barely any. In the first half of the game, Elon shot zero free throws while the Heels attempted 14. In the second half the Heels sent the Phoenix to the line to shoot nine free throws, but they still got to attempt 21 of their own, bringing their total to 35 for the game. Does this mean that if UNC shot as many free throws as Elon did they could’ve lost? Well, probably yes, but also there’s two bigger takeaways here: one of that this team is shooting free throws pretty well, which will be important in close games (Bacot skewed the numbers a bit since he was the only player that missed more than two attempts). The second takeaway is that this team is getting to the free throw line, which is a sign that UNC is doing a very good job of being aggressive and attacking the basket. It’s really hard to get those calls when players are passive and taking a bunch of jump shots.
Sure, it’s Elon and the game should’ve been won by a larger margin, but they haven’t really been blown out the way one would think against any Power Five team so far this season. UNC got the win, as ugly as it was, and that’s all that matters.
This defense continues to improve
I’m not going to lie: I didn’t love hearing how many three-pointers Elon attempted per game prior to last night. Tar Heel fans know that it isn’t about what their shooting percentage is to that point, but it’s about whether or not the Heels would let someone get hot and have a game that makes absolutely no sense. The Phoenix ended up attempting 29 three-pointers, but they only made eight of them thanks to UNC’s stingy perimeter defense. They also only allowed the Phoenix to shoot 43% for the entire game, and stole the ball from Elon 12 times.
One aspect that we don’t discuss about ugly wins enough is very good defense, and not only did the Heels deliver in that department, they did it while barely sending Elon to the free throw line. Things have taken quite the 180 in the defense department for UNC, and it seems like we can all finally exhale for the most part. One would hope they don’t lose focus for the rest of the season and allow opponents to shoot at high clips, but we will just have to wait and see.
For now, we can celebrate the fact that Hubert Davis found a way to get this team to play with the defensive intensity that is required to make a big run in not only the ACC, but the NCAA Tournament. He and the team deserve a lot of credit, and now, on to Furman Tuesday night.