PHILADELPHIA — UNC trailed UCLA in the second half in the Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia Friday night.
It turned out, all they needed was Love.
Caleb Love scored 27 of his 30 points after halftime, and North Carolina moved on to the Elite Eight for the first time since the national championship season of 2017 with a 73-66 win.
UNC led for just over eight minutes, to UCLA’s 26, and the two teams exchanged the lead 14 times with eight ties in a wild shootout. In the aptly named City of Brotherly Love, the UNC guard never saw a shot he didn’t like — good or bad.
Love made his first shot of the game — a 3-pointer — but missed his next seven to finish the first half. At halftime, UNC’s director of basketball operations Eric Hoots had a suggestion for him.
“He told me to change shoes,” Love said. “I never play well in black shoes. He told me to change, and it worked out.”
Coach Hubert Davis had some more practical advice for the sophomore guard.
“He wanted me to attack the basket,” Love said. “I got a few layups going. I got downhill, and then the outside shot started to fall. Once you see them go through, your rhythm is there.”
“Caleb, because of his size and athleticism, is probably the one guy on the perimeter who can create his own shot,” Davis said. “Tonight, he started inside-out. At times, when he gets in trouble is when he starts outside-in — or outside, outside, outside. He has the ability to attack the basket and attack the rim. I know when I was playing, I always wanted to get a couple layups and feel better before stepping out and hitting the jump shot.”
Love started the second half with a layup for UNC’s first two points.
And then he was off.
Love hit on the run. He hit off balance. He hit from deep, then from deeper, and then he tried a heat check and hit that too.
He didn’t make them all, of course, but he overwhelmed his inaccuracy through the strength of numbers. Love took half of UNC’s shots after halftime — 16 of 32. The rest of his teammates never took more than four shots in a row before Love let fly.
He scored 12 straight UNC points starting with 12:53 left and running to the 5:21 mark. Over a 100-second period during that streak, he scored seven in a row with no one else taking a shot.
And that was just setting up his star turn.
With 1:48 remaining, he missed a 3-pointer that bounced wildly off the rim and toward the baseline. Armando Bacot reached it and blindly tossed it over his shoulder to save it from going out of bounds. It was one of Bacot’s game-high 15 rebounds and, as he said, “It was a pivotal moment in the game.”
The ball went directly to Love at the top of the key. He jumped to catch it and seemed anxious to put up a shot before he even landed. He waited, though, and when his feet touched the floor he went up again and knocked down the 3 that tied the game.
UCLA missed at the other end and the ball found Love again. That 3 put UNC on top to stay.
He added two free throws in the final minute to put UNC up two possessions. When the dust cleared, he had provided 10 of UNC’s 15 second-half field goals, five of the Tar Heels’ six 3-pointers after the break and 27 of their 45 second-half points.
“Sometimes, when I’m out there, I’m just in a mood,” he said.
“In big-time games like this, it has nothing to do with coaching,” Davis said. “It’s just players stepping up and making plays. Everybody that played tonight made plays. Caleb made a lot.”
Still, while coaching may not have had much to do with Love’s heroics, Davis was covering all of his bases.
“Let Hoots know I’m gonna give him a raise,” he said. “I didn’t even know he switched shoes.”