“Don’t need a three here.”
As the time bled painfully slowly off the clock in Philadelphia, I kept repeating those five words. Almost like a mantra, each time the Tar Heels crossed center court, I heard myself muttering the same thing. I desperately wanted something going to the basket; with right around two minutes remaining on the clock it made perfect sense to drive, cut the UCLA lead to one with a high-percentage shot and get a stop at the other end. Listening to the coward that lives somewhere in the back of my head, I was petrified of a five- or six-point swing precipitated by a missed three at one end and a quick score for the Bruins. The “hero ball” boogeyman was in every shadow of my living room.
Shows you what I know. A deep three from Caleb Love, a tie ball game, and a massive momentum swing. A subsequent miss from the always-dangerous Jaime Jaquez, Jr., the Tar Heels bringing the ball back up the court, and me—again—rocking back and forth repeating my naïve slogan. With just over a minute left in the game, from what felt like a cheesesteak joint down the street, Love struck once more.
Suddenly finding themselves down three with under a minute left, the experienced Bruins team couldn’t get up off the proverbial mat. Those twin haymakers from Love, followed by a quick jab from Armando Bacot in the form of a tip-in with 22 seconds remaining in the game, spelled the end of UCLA’s bid for a second straight Final Four appearance.
Love had just three points in the first half of last night’s game. An early triple, then a frustrating stretch as Carolina and UCLA traded blows and Love was relegated to being a distributor, dishing out three of his four assists in the first period of play.
I truly didn’t know who I would be heralding as player of the game as the Heels headed into the halftime locker room lucky to only be down three. Then Love removed all doubt, going supernova and scoring 27 of the team’s 45 total second-half points while sinking five of his six threes on the night, including two of the biggest three-point shots in recent memory to put the Heels up for good.
It started with driving the ball. The rim must’ve started to grow—as Love watched the bunnies start to fall, the slashes to the rim start ending in points, and the jumpers began to drop, the ground may as well have started to shake. What happened next was a force of nature, a swell of scoring that buoyed a struggling cast of Heels into the Elite Eight. You love to see it, and Love saw it all so clearly.
Caleb Love is hands down the player of the game, as well as the reason that the Heels will be playing on Sunday, but the play of the game may have belonged to another Tar Heel. When Carolina was down three, 61-64, Love missed a three and the ball caromed off towards the corner, almost certain to fall out of bounds and give the Bruins the ball back with a three-point lead. Except it didn’t; there was Bacot, seemingly struggling all evening with a bothersome back, saving the ball beautifully back out to Love at the top of the key for a crucial second chance.