By R.L. Bynum
When Caleb Love and Armando Bacot are confident and consistent, North Carolina is going to be hard to beat.
N.C. State discovered that Saturday when it was obvious that both were in a groove as the Tar Heels avenged a December loss with an 86–76 victory at the Smith Center.
Carolina (10–5, 5–3 ACC) has shot better than 50% for three consecutive halves with much better shot selection and has won five of its last six games. The Tar Heels, who point total was a season-high, shot a season-high 54.4% from the floor, topping the previous high of 47.7% in the loss at Iowa.
Love had an easy answer as to why the Tar Heels are surging.
“Just us all playing together, working as one,” he said. “I think we just have the chemistry going, getting better and better each and every game and each and every practice. You see in the games, just playing hard, fast, smart and playing together. That’s all it takes.”
Love’s success helped create better opportunities inside, which Bacot (17 points, eight rebounds) and Day’Ron Sharpe (16 points, 10 rebounds for his fourth double-double) exploited. Bacot was the only big man to finish consistently inside against Wake Forest but Sharpe also did that Saturday.
“I knew coming out, I had to be aggressive,” said Bacot, who was 15 of 21 combined in the two games against the Wolfpack. “They kind of weren’t respecting us, just backing off so hard. So, I was just like, ‘I’m going to take this home.’ I shot the jump shot and it opened things up a little bit. I knew if I drove, it would open things up for shooters like Kerwin [Walton] and make life easier on the outside.”
Bacot’s recent play is the best of his career. He said it all goes back to the offseason when he watched videos of last season’s games and learned what he needed to do better.
“It was tough watching some of those games,” Bacot said. “It feels like some games, I would explode and then I would struggle. I kind of corrected those things that I was struggling in. It started during the whole quarantine working on being physical, just getting to the rim.”
Love finished with 15 points and five assists. Although he still had a team-high five turnovers, he played in the flow of the offense and didn’t seem as hesitant as he was earlier in the season. His backup at point guard, RJ Davis, collected 10 points and three assists.
“The best thing to me is I think their defensive grades are getting better,” Coach Roy Williams said of Love and Davis, noting that their combined seven turnovers were too many. But he’s big on Love’s defensive potential, saying he could be the best defensive point guard he’s ever coached. “But he’s got to do it. It doesn’t make any difference if I say it. He’s got to do it.”
Love knows where he needs to improve.
“I can’t have the turnovers,” he said. “Five turnovers is way too much. I put it on myself. But I’m getting better and better as I watch the film. I look at the defense, how they’re playing it. Just getting better every day on how to feed the post or where the defense is.”
Carolina had 18 assists and 13 turnovers to mark the fourth consecutive game with more assists than turnovers.
Sharpe scored consistently when he got chances and again showed that he’s an excellent passer on those high-low passes from one big man to the other. His nice spin moves were tough for the Wolfpack to defend.
“Before practice every day, we do our favorite time where we work on a favorite move and I try to work on spinning off the block, pump-faking,” Sharpe said. “We do it every day in practice. So, it’s becoming like muscle memory.”
Anthony Harris came off the bench to score 10 points, marking the first time four UNC freshmen have scored in double figures since Jan. 27, 2007, against Arizona (Ty Lawson 18, Wayne Ellington 14, Deon Thompson 14 and Alex Stepheson 10.)
UNC got a season-high 38 bench points, topping the previous best of 30 in the loss at State.
Devon Daniels made three 3-pointers and led the Wolfpack (6–5, 2–4) with 21 points.
N.C. State, playing its first game in 10 days, has lost four consecutive games and has only won one game (vs. Boston College on Dec. 30) since its victory over Carolina.
The first half may have been the Tar Heels’ finest half of the season, with the most points in any first half this season (43) and the best shooting half of the season (56.8%), which topped the 54.8% shooting in the second half of the Wake Forest victory.
UNC built on the 43–33 halftime lead and went up by 14 on a 6–0 run, capped by a Davis 3-pointer with 13:39 left.
Walton hit 3-pointers with 5:41 left and 4:09 remaining in the game with State creeping closer. The Pack pulled within 75–69 on a Daniels 3-pointer with 3:54 left. After the Tar Heels attempted a total of six 3-pointers in the previous two halves, they attempted six and made three in the second half.
The big negative in the game for UNC was its 8 of 18 free-throw shooting. That 44.4% shooting was the worst since shooting 27.3% (3 of 11) in a win over Wake Forest on Feb. 16, 2019.
UNC outrebounded its opponent for the 13th time in 15 games, this time 44–30 against the Wolfpack. Carolina had a 37.8%–18.9% advantage on offensive rebounding percentage.
The Tar Heels’ next two games are 7 p.m. Tuesday road matchups to be televised by ACC Network: this Tuesday at Pittsburgh (8–3, 4–2 after Saturday night’s 76–75 road loss to Wake Forest) and Feb. 2 at Clemson (9–4, 3–4 after losing 80-61 Saturday at Florida State).
North Carolina 86, N.C. State 76
UNC’s lineup combinations
Updated UNC statistics
Pool photos by Robert Willett