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UNC vs Duke - Player of the Game: Caleb Love

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The freshman point guard dazzled in his team’s biggest game of the season.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

More of that the rest of the season, please. After a wild seesaw of a past two games, where he seemed to have turned a corner one week before completely losing all the acumen he’d shown the next, Caleb Love returned to form and more in this year’s first iteration of American sports’ greatest rivalry, turning in easily his best game of the season and leading his UNC Tar Heels to victory over the Duke Blue Devils. His 25 points and seven assists both led the team as well as being career highs for his short time so far in Chapel Hill.

The point guard brought everything that we’d been hoping for from his arrival, including great slashing, excellent shooting, transition competence (finally!), and even creative playmaking, which has been an underdeveloped part of his offensive game. He opened the game with authority, with a steal capped off by a poster dunk and-1, and seemed to ride the rest of the game on the adrenaline boost that highlight gave him.

He drove to the basket confidently despite a few misses near the rim, sunk a step-back midrange jumper, and manipulated Duke defenders excellently in transition to the tune of more easy baskets, the kind that have been missing from UNC games good and bad this year. It wasn’t vintage Carolina, but Love did give us the closest thing we’ve seen to it in a couple of years.

Oh, and he knocked down a three-pointer after Armando Bacot turned a fumbled dunk in transition into an assist to Love in the corner. When UNC went to the halftime locker room up two, Love had 10 points and 1 assist to go with 2 turnovers, shaping to have a decent game but not a great one.

In the second half, though, he was exquisite, taking control of the Duke defense and getting the UNC offense baskets at will. He found his bigs for easy buckets, moved the ball around in the halfcourt, and took great shots, knocking down three more threes to go with a couple of layups and two free throws for 15 more points and six more assists. He was clutch as well; one of his threes was in the last two minutes of the game to extend the Heels’ lead to seven, and his two free throws extended the Heels’ lead to five with less than one minute remaining, holding off a Duke comeback that almost materialized.

He did almost help the Blue Devils along in the process with two dribbling giveaways against Jordan Goldwire in the last couple of minutes that led to Duke scores, and finished with a higher-than-you’d-like five turnovers, which almost nullified all the work he’d put into getting his team in position to win. But the Heels managed to hold on, so those turnovers can be little more than a funny recollection.

Love still has work to do on his handle and off-ball defense, as he was burned for several backdoor layups even as his on-ball defense remained remarkable. But he showed off everything he can do in this game, and it got his team an important victory as well as hope for him and the team moving forward to build on an excellent offensive performance.

You don’t put up 91 points without a few positive contributors, so here are some honorable mentions. Day’Ron Sharpe had himself quite a day in his first rivalry game as well, with 11 points and nine rebounds on just five shots (he made all of them) in just 17 minutes. He did miss three of his four free throws, which was frustrating particularly situated with this team’s struggles recently from the charity stripe (13/22 on Saturday, 7/15 from UNC’s three primary bigs), however, and couldn’t play extended minutes against a more perimeter-oriented lineup.

Kerwin Walton was on fire as a shooter, hitting three early threes and one more in the second half for 12 points on four shots, though his defense was at times suspect. And Armando Bacot returned to relevancy after a no-show against Clemson, and while he missed a lot more shots close to the basket than he’s usually been this season, going 6/12 for 16 points and adding six rebounds and two steals isn’t a bad line at all.

UNC has positive momentum again, and hopefully the Clemson game proves to have been a hiccup as we continue to move through this season. We’ll see them again, back at the Dean Dome, against Miami on Tuesday.