Most folks were expecting a rock fight, but despite the relatively low 73-66 final score, UNC and UCLA put on a great game in front of the country to wrap up the Sweet 16. The back and forth affair was full of drama that is exactly what you expect for college basketball at this time of year.
Somehow this magical ride the Tar Heels have been on since their win in Blacksburg continues, and here’s what we’ve learned as the Tar Heels marched ever closer to New Orleans by defeating the Bruins.
Love Steps Up
I was going to go with some sort of play on words there, but Ian Eagle pretty much used them all last night.
The great thing about this run for the Tar Heels is that each game has seen a different player step up to be the hero. Against Marquette, Brady Manek led the way. RJ Davis put the team on his back against Baylor when the chips were down, and he had to do that when Caleb Love fouled out with a lot of time left in the game. Love was cheering his teammates on from the bench, not sulking, but doing what he could to try to will the team on.
He seemed to want to make amends last night.
What’s funny is that with Caleb, you almost hate it when he makes his first shot because it gives him a ton of irrational confidence. That is exactly what happened in the first half against UCLA, as Caleb hit his first shot for three...and those ended up being his only points of the half. It seemed as if this were another “Love shoots himself out of the game” moment, but something changed in the second half.
Caleb picked apart the UCLA defense that was trying to account for Armando Bacot and Manek. UCLA essentially dared him to shoot after he only put up three in the first half, and he made them pay with drives to the basket that kept going in. Once that happened, those three pointers were easy money. He would go on to score 27 in the second half, including this one with under a minute left that gave the Tar Heels the lead for good:
Love has taken a lot of ire from fans, and in case you were wondering if he heard it, by his reactions on the court you could see him exorcising several demons with each bomb made. Last night was Exhibits A, B, and C as to why coach Hubert Davis continues to trust Caleb, and on this night the patience was rewarded.
If there had been any question about whether or not the fact that Carolina gave up a 25-point lead last weekend would hang around this team, they were answered. UCLA runs always had an answer, and the team didn’t get dejected on defense when the Bruins made tough shots.
This is noteworthy because this is the first real tight game this group of Tar Heels have played in the tournament — you almost throw out Baylor because of the 25 point lead and the weirdness around it. In truth, since their blowout losses to Miami and Wake Forest, the Tar Heels have either blown teams out or stayed close, even getting a run in on Duke in the first game in Chapel Hill before it got away from them. They kept moving on.
That short memory attitude extended last night as the Tar Heels refused to get down whenever UCLA kept answering the bell, and they finally wore them down in the end. With 2:07 left UCLA took the lead one last time thanks to a basket by Tyger Campbell, and Carolina — specifically Love — answered right back to tie it. In fact, UCLA wouldn’t score again until there were nine seconds left to cut Carolina’s lead from five to three. The Tar Heels avoided their inbounding problems from last week — amazing what happens when both Love and Manek are in there to accept passes-and sealed it afterwards.
The growth of this team has been a sight to behold, and the fact that they had the confidence to get over a rough ending last week and rough moments in the game makes them almost a completely different squad than the one we saw in January. Something that Hubert Davis liked to remind us of.
That was a long time ago. I apologize. I’m serious. We won now 15 out of the last 18 games? That Wake Forest game was in January. As I told you before — and I apologize, I’m a positive guy. I’m a positive guy. These guys have won, what is it, nine out of the last ten, 15 out of the last 18, and we’re going to talk about a game in January?
Hubert Davis and his Subs
What should be apparent by now is that Hubert Davis does have trust in players on his bench to come in and spell the starters when needed, and isn’t beholden to how that sub did in the prior game.
For instance, look at last weekend’s hero, Dontrez Styles. After playing 25 minutes against Baylor, the freshman only played five minutes against UCLA, and most in the first half. He tried an ill-advised three during that time, and was promptly put back on the bench. Enter Puff Johnson, who saw only ten minutes of action.
Some of those minutes, though, were the key to the win. Brady Manek did not have a great game, as he was having trouble finding his shot after torching the nets in Fort Worth. After a missed bunny with around eight minutes left, Davis pulled Manek and let him grab some time to recollect himself. Puff played well during that time, keeping with his man, pulling down a rebound, and helping keep the score about where it was when Manek stepped out. It was only two game minutes, but in reality with the TV Timeout, it was more like ten real minutes, and sure enough a couple minutes later Manek hit a huge three to take the lead for Carolina.
The ability of Davis to read which guy might have it and work best with the opponent hasn’t been noted nearly as well as it should be, as most would have stuck with the hero from last weekend. It’s yet another little thing that confirms there was a reason Roy Williams thought Davis would be the best man for the job, and that nimble nature has led Carolina onto the brink of returning to New Orleans for the first time since 1993.