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How Caleb Love tormented Duke

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The freshman PG finally had a breakout game. Let’s take a look.

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

By now you’ve watched, read, and digested one of the most memorable performances by a UNC freshman at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Caleb Love was sensational. He finished with 25 points and seven assists on 9-16 shooting (4-5 from deep). It was as complete a performance as we’ve seen.

However, the most impressive part of the night was how every time UNC needed a bucket, Love delivered. Either by shooting, scoring, or assisting, the freshman point guard made sure UNC didn’t collapse. Most impressively, he did consistently throughout the game and not in one short burst.

Let’s take a look.

First Half

For a number of reasons, UNC squandered an early double-digit lead. Foul trouble on Leaky Black, Roy’s penchant for going deep on his bench in the first half, and typical Duke shenanigans cut it to 28-18. Love had just reentered the game when UNC held a 28-24 lead, but an Andrew Platek turnover cut that to 28-26.

Mid-Range Jumper

Caleb took the handoff from Brooks, and Jeremy Roach goes under the the exchange (not shown). Love accelerates into space, gets Roach on his heels, and hits an in-rhythm jumper. Not always the most efficient, but points are points. UNC maintains a lead, 30-26 with 6:13 remaining in the half.

Transition Drive

Duke continued their assault on UNC’s lead, taking a 32-30 advantage. It was their first lead of the night, and Love responded. Having grabbed the defensive rebound, Love pushed the ball up court, meandering his way from the right side to the left side, looking for space.

Anthony Harris keeps DJ Steward occupied in the corner and Love hits the hole. Transition buckets have been few and far between this season, but Love was borderline sensational at attacking the rim with poise and situational awareness in Cameron. This tied the game at 32-32, w/ 3:13 remaining in the half. They were UNC’s first points since Love’s jumper mentioned above.

Assist to Bacot

Joey Baker hit a three to give Duke the 35-32 lead, but UNC answered on the next possession. Love receives the reversal from RJ Davis. Without any hesitation, Love draws the defender out and attacks as Mark Williams comes to a stop.

With Williams unable to recover, Baker is forced into help. Love avoids initiating contact, Baker flops, and Bacot is wide open on the baseline. Three weeks ago, Love either plows into Baker or forces a contested floater. Instead he helps bring UNC within one, 35-34 with 1:59 remaining in the half.

Three Pointer

On the next defensive possession, a Day’Ron Sharpe steal leads to a fast break. Love and Bacot hit the gas. Seriously. Look at Bacot get up the court. He almost catches Love at halfcourt.

Love eventually hits Bacot for the easy bucket with a beautiful bounce pass (in stride!), but Bacot can’t control the pass. As the big man regroups, Love repositions himself in the corner.

He takes the pass from Armando and drains it. It was Love’s first three pointer of the evening, and gave UNC a 37-35 lead with 1:59 left in the half. It also meant that Love was involved on nine straight UNC points just as panic was starting to set in.

The Heels never trailed again.

Second Half

Love started the second half how he finished the first. Aggressively attacking the paint, he created opportunities for the rest of the team as Bacot asserted his dominance inside. As UNC gained a 12-point lead mid-way through the second half, Love scored or assisted on 11 of 15 consecutive UNC points. But, as in the first half, Love was at his best with Duke lurking.

Run-stopping three

Despite at one point taking a 62-50 lead, UNC let Duke keep clawing their way back into contention. After a quick breather, Love checked back in with 8:42 remaining. UNC held a 69-64 lead, but a Matthew Hurt three cut that to two. Love took over. Again.

Helping to stifle another meltdown, Love runs the lane after Leaky started the primary break off a defensive rebound. Love slides down the sideline, takes the pass from Leaky and knocks down his third three. Jordan Goldwire’s seems more concerned with denying an entry pass to Bacot, giving Love some space. Nothing special, but Love hitting threes is a glorious site to UNC fans. Heels regain a five point lead, 72-67.

Assist to Brooks

Duke cut the lead to 72-70, but a few possession later Love finds Brooks for another bucket. A simple BLOB (baseline out-of-bounds) gets Brooks free on the opposite block. Love makes another pinpoint pass, and Brooks finishes. Please note Love’s excitement at the top of the screen. Heels lead 74-70.

Yes, on the night, Love had five turnovers. But, as the previous two plays show, he also made many basic, fundamental plays. Those have been missing for much of this year. If anything, these plays highlight how good UNC can be if they can execute simple shots and passes. Having given up a 12 point lead, the pressure was noticeably increasing on the young Heels. This was a major play.

Assist to Walton

Duke refused to go away, cutting the lead to 74-72 on a Jordan Goldwire layup. Bacot immediately inbounds the ball. Love takes just three dribbles to get up the court before Duke can get set. Walton did his part by immediately filling in the lane.

Love picks up his dribble and hits Walton in perfect rhythm. Again, another simple play, but executed at a speed and tempo that’s been missing much of this year. It doesn’t get any easier than that, and UNC leads 77-72 with 6:31 remaining.

Love Running Jumper/Lay-up

After some more back and forth, the score is tied at 79-79. Love again pushes the pace, gains momentum, hits the left side of the lane, and does his weird right handed running jump shot layup. It’s not pretty, but at this moment, any shot that produced points was a good shot. Heels lead 81-79 with 3:46 remaining.

Love’s fourth three

Holding a 83-79 lead, both teams were getting desperate. UNC wanted to put the game away and Duke hoped to snatch victory from defeat. Caleb Love rose to the moment and hit, arguably, the biggest shot of the game. I’ll break it down in four parts.

First, UNC goes back to the “horns” set. (We’ll look more at this in the future.) Duke traps off the first ball screen, and they never recover. Love kicks it back to Brooks. Bacot rolls to the rim.

Brooks swings to Walton, who finds Bacot with a mismatch in the post before being double-teamed. It’s one of many options out of “horns”, but Bacot never had great position to convert.

Instead of forcing an off-balance, contested shot, Bacot swings to Leaky on the opposite sideline. Duke is scrambling, essentially playing five on four after their attempted trap.

Leaky lets the defense respond and swings to Love who buries an absolute dagger. This kind of shot takes a specific kind of confidence or youthful ignorance. Incredible ball movement, set up from a relatively new play design (for UNC) and an overly aggressive Duke defense. UNC takes an 86-79 lead with 1:54 remaining.

Duke continued to hang around, but these plays over a six minute stretch were crucial to staving off a desperate Blue Devil team. Fully acknowledge that Brooks and Bacot also had big games, but this was Love’s night. He was directly responsible for 42 of UNC’s 91 points. Over the final 8:42 of game action he score on or assisted on 15 of UNC’s final 22 points.

While it was a team effort, with six Heels scoring in double digits, Saturday was the first time all season that a single player physically, mentally, and emotionally put the team on their back and willed UNC to victory.

The fact that Duke was the opponent just makes it more impressive.