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UNC vs. Syracuse: Player of the Game — Caleb Love

A lot deserve this, but they don’t win without Caleb.

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

As Caleb Love goes, so goes the team.

In a lot of ways, last night’s game was a microcosm of his season. For the first 37 minutes of the game, the sophomore was only 2-14 from the floor overall, and 1-8 from behind the arc. At the beginning of the second half, his play had been so lackluster that Hubert Davis did something he rarely does: sit Caleb on the bench. Puff Johnson saw extended minutes during the second half while Caleb took some time to figure out what was going on. He was the primary defender on Cole Swider who came within one point of tying the mark for an opposing player in the Smith Center. It was just a tough game that saw the Tar Heels down one with 14 seconds left, and it was arguably because Love struggled mightily.

Then he just casually took a deep three with seven seconds left on the game clock.

The ball swished through, and although Syracuse would rush down the court and get a layup to tie it, forcing overtime, Clutch Caleb had been activated and the Orange didn’t stand a chance.

Love would go on to score eight more points in the extra period, including another three and the final “and one” dagger with just under a minute remaining that stretched Carolina’s lead to nine. Bad Caleb = Carolina struggles, Good Caleb = Carolina winning going away. As confusing as this team has been, it’s really just that simple.

Ultimately, though, this really was a full team effort to get this win. Manek was the leading scorer with 21, finding holes in the 2-3 zone and taking advantage with multiple cuts and shots close to the rim. Armando Bacot had yet another double-double with 17/18, including 7-9 from the charity stripe. He arguably should have had more chances, but the Tar Heels fell in love with the three because of the zone. RJ Davis had 17 while playing committed defense, and Leaky Black played 44...yes 44 minutes...a little over 48 hours after hyperextending his left knee. Pretty much all of those minutes were playing defense on Buddy Boeheim, who only scored 14 points despite playing all 45 minutes.

Every player on the floor had a huge role, but the game literally turned the moment Caleb hit that shot. It may not have been the actual game winner, but it effectively was because the Tar Heels wouldn’t miss another shot until there were a little under two minutes left in the OT. By then, the Tar Heels were committed on defense, and the Orange were done.

Caleb thus is the only real choice for the player of the game. For good and for bad, the game turned on him.