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NCAA Tournament: UNC tops UCLA to advance to East Region final

03/26/2022, 10:30am EDT
By Jerome Taylor

Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)

PHILADELPHIA – Caleb Love only had three points heading into halftime, and his team trailed by the same amount. Something had to change. 

Love’s low-scoring output in the first half made him reconsider his approach, and the first change he made was a cosmetic one. 

[Eric] Hoots told me to change them because I never play good in the black shoes,” Love said. “So he told me to change them, and it worked out.

Caleb Love (above) went off in the second half to lift UNC past UCLA at Wells Fargo on Friday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

In the same powder blue uniform that Michael Jordan once dawned, Love and the UNC basketball Director of Operations created their own “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes” moment when Davis changed from Black Jordans to Carolina Blue Jordans. 

“I'm going to give him a raise. So just let Hoots know,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said. “I didn't even know he switched shoes. I don't think it was the shoes. I just think that Caleb played really well.”

“In big-time games like this, it has nothing to do with coaching. It's about players just stepping up and making plays. Everybody that played made plays, and Caleb made a lot, especially in the second half.”

With 1:48 remaining in regulation two Tar Heels stepped up. After Love’s pull-up three ricocheted off the rim, Armando Bacot made an incredible play, flying past the baseline to save the ball and secure another opportunity.

I think my instincts took over. That was a pivotal moment in the game…I don't know what would have happened if I didn't get that board,” Bacot said. 

When Bacot batted the ball back, it somehow landed right back in Love’s hands. Using a similar behind-the-back dribble, he fired again. This time he drilled it. 

I just was trying to really keep the play alive and just hopefully just threw the ball up hoping that somebody would get it,” Bacot said. “It was great that Caleb had the instincts to find the ball and then to hit a big three after finding it. That was huge.”

The three was Love’s 24th point of the evening, and he finished the game with 30 as the eighth-seeded Tar Heels defeated fourth-seeded UCLA, 73-66, at the Wells Fargo Center to move on to the Elite Eight.

In a follow-up to the historic first leg of the East Regional semifinal, it was only fitting that when two of the most esteemed collegiate basketball programs took the court, it went down to the wire. 

UCLA and Tar Heels were only separated by more than six points for 39.3 seconds throughout the evening. And UNC’s Elite 8 path didn’t clear up until there was under a minute left, when Love came through yet again..

Thirty-seven seconds after tying the game, the sophomore drilled another three to give UNC a three-point lead, and from the 1:03-mark on, they never trailed again.

Besides the wardrobe change, Davis noted that Love started playing more downhill in the second half, which opened up his outside shot (6-13 3PT), a sentiment that UNC’s opponent shared. 

Coach Davis just wanted me to attack the basket. He feels that I'm best, and I'm with him -- when I'm going downhill,” Love said. “I got a few lay-ups going downhill, and then the outside shot started to fall. Once you get those, see them go through, your rhythm is there.

“I feel like he got some good looks early and knocked them down,” UCLA head coach Mike Cronin said. “When you give a player like that good looks, and he starts knocking them down… they can get hot in this tournament. One hot player can send you home.”

It wasn’t all Love that helped UNC pick up their record-tying (with Kentucky) 129th NCAA tournament win. As Brady Manek scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds, RJ Davis also chipped in with 12 points and seven rebounds, including the two free throws that pushed the Tar Heel lead to 7 with .3 seconds remaining, after the teams had to come back on the court because of a premature buzzer. 

UNC also got tremendous contributions from their frontcourt, especially on the offense glass.

(Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Bacot (above) finished with a 14-point, 15-rebound (8 offensive) double-double. And a pair of Bacot’s offensive boards swung the game decisively. 

The first was his out-of-bounds baseline save to give UNC an opportunity to tie the game. His second came with 15 seconds remaining when he scored on a putback after an RJ Davis miss to put UNC up five. 

“None of us wanted to go home, and we knew it was a great opportunity ahead of us. I was just going all out just trying to affect the game in as many ways as possible,” Bacot said. “Luckily, it was positive, and we ended up hitting a big shot and getting a few stops and rebounds, and I'm happy with the results.”

On the other end of those offensive boards was UCLA. The Bruins had their sights set on reaching the Final Four in consecutive years, and hopefully more.

“That changed the game. We get that rebound, it's a different -- but you never know what happens. But obviously, that's going to keep me up at night,” Cronin said.

But Cronin hopes this group of Bruins that consists of Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr., and Jules Benard will be remembered as the team that brought UCLA back into the national conversation.

“We practice under the pyramid of success, and true greatness is giving your best effort. Give your best effort to get your degree, be a good person, be a good teammate. They've restored UCLA to the national scene,” Cronin said.

“I'm very proud of them. Just try to hammer home to them that you can't let this loss define your career because we all know, especially those of us from LA in here, what they've done to turn our program around.”

In contrast, in front of a mostly UNC crowd on Friday, Davis clinched a spot in the Elite Eight in his first year at the helm of his alma mater. 

“The only thing that I've ever wanted is I want them to experience and see the things that I've been able to experience here at North Carolina as a player,” Davis said with a tremendous sense of sincerity. “Like these are things that they're going to be talking about for the rest of their life, and I get a chance, a front-row seat to be able to witness that.”

Now, UNC will meet the Cinderella team of the tournament, 15-seed St. Peter’s, in the first-ever 8-vs-15 matchup in the Elite Eight on Sunday for a chance to head to the Final Four.

“The thing that just jumps right out is how much [Shaheen Holloway’s] players love playing for him, and they have his personality,” Davis said of the upcoming matchup. “They're here for a reason, because they're an incredible team, but they're also incredibly tied together…On Sunday, it'll be our toughest game of the year.”

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