By R.L. Bynum
As Caleb Love’s struggles continued, RJ Davis gave North Carolina just the backcourt boost it needed for 39 minutes.
Then Love came through at the end.
Love followed up a huge 3-pointer with 36 seconds left with a drive and dish for a Brady Manek layup with 3.1 seconds left. His heroics, and 60.7% second-half shooting, gave the Tar Heels a wild 79–77 bounce-back win at Clemson on Tuesday night.
In one of his best floor games of the season, Davis collected 16 points, six assists and no turnovers as UNC (17–7, 9–4 ACC) prevailed. The Heels wouldn’t have pulled it off, though, if not for Leaky Black’s big second half (all 11 points) and another monster game from Armando Bacot (18th double-double of the season with 24 points and 10 rebounds), who fouled out with 1:03 left.
UNC, which moved to 8–0 when it shoots 50%, is tied for third place in the ACC, only a half-game behind Notre Dame and Duke (see standings below).
“I was talking to Caleb, maybe a minute left in the game, and I told him to ‘keep your head up,’ you’re going to make a big play. And I’m proud of him,” said RJ Davis, who has scored in double figures the last seven games and had a career-best assist-to-turnover ratio in a turnover-free game. Davis said he couldn’t comment on his technical foul.
RJ Davis was prophetic and Coach Hubert Davis played a hunch.
“Caleb just hit a three and so we just felt like, hey, he’s feeling good about himself,” Hubert Davis said of his decision to put the ball in Love’s hands in the final seconds. “Brady was able to set the screen and, because of that separation from the screen off of Leaky, Caleb was able to get downhill.”
Instead of Manek, who scored 11 points, going off a screen for a perimeter shot, he seized the opportunity to make a big play inside.
“He recognized that Caleb was going to the basket and so either Caleb could dish it off to him or he could be there in position to get the offensive rebound,” Coach Davis said. “It was a great pass by Caleb to Brady and it was a great finish by him.”
Davis tried to lighten up the mood by joking with the team late in the game, and it seemed to work as Carolina showed the poise to make plays at the end.
“I said, ‘Let’s try not to go in overtime,’ ” Coach Davis said. ” ‘Let’s win this game in regulation so we can get home at a good hour of the night.’ And they all started laughing. I think it loosened them up a little bit. But I think it really helped that we had been in this situation before.”
Given how Love’s game had gone, he appreciated Coach Davis giving him the chance to win the game.
“He trusted me to make those type of decisions, in that environment and in that situation, and I appreciate him for that and I’m glad we came out on top,” said Love, whose bad decisions, sloppy turnovers (a team-high five) and poor shooting (4 of 12) made consistent offense tough for Carolina most of the night before his late heroics.
“My confidence never wavers as far as my plays because I know just making shots is not the whole basketball game,” Love said. “I just got to make plays down the stretch for my team and so on. Yeah, I’m in a shooting slump right now but it can’t go forever.”
His decision-making and execution on his big drive were just what Carolina needed, knowing that his shot might get blocked.
“[Manek] usually cuts when I drive, so I saw him and I passed it,” Love said.
A 3-point attempt by Clemson’s David Collins rimmed out at the buzzer.
Bacot was impressed with Love’s resiliency after a turnover with 2:07 left with UNC down by one. Love assisted on a Manek jumper on the next possession, though, and settled down from there. Manek’s inside bucket with 1:39 put UNC up one. But Bacot was called for goaltending on a P.J. Hall shot and then got his fifth foul for shoving Collins at the other end.
“I definitely think that showed a lot of heart that he has,” Bacot said of Love. “Make the late turnover and still just be confident enough to be aggressive and go downhill. Sometimes, especially late in games, with a scrappy team like that, it could possibly lead to another turnover. Just to make a play like that, I mean, it was huge.”
Bacot had a good battle inside with Hall, who also scored 24 for Clemson (12–11, 4–8), which was a career-high.
“I definitely saw a lot of growth with me being out and us not having a lot of depth at the center position and just to fight and stay in it, it was great,” Bacot said.
The rally from 11 points down tied the largest of the season, with the other coming across the state at College of Charleston. UNC, which has won nine of its last 12 games at Littlejohn Coliseum, only led for 16 minutes and 16 seconds, with the 16:10 leading at Charleston the only game leading for less time in a victory.
With the win, the Tar Heels, who had lost the previous two meetings, have still never lost three consecutive games to Clemson.
It was the first game-winning basket for UNC in the final five seconds since Andrew Platek’s bucket at Miami last season with 3.6 seconds left in the 67–65 victory on Jan. 5, 2021.
Black has scored in double figures three times this season, all in the last six games. His corner 3-pointer with 3:57 left gave UNC a 72–68 lead. His 3 in overtime at Louisville broke an 81–all tie.
Carolina became only the third team to shoot 50% this season against Clemson, the previous times coming in Tigers losses to Virginia and Syracuse.
The teams traded runs to start the game with two Clemson 8–0 runs sandwiching a 7–0 UNC run to give the Tigers a 16–7 lead at the second TV timeout, thanks to five Carolina turnovers and only three field goals.
UNC went scoreless for nearly 5½ minutes before a Bacot bucket and a Kerwin Walton 3-pointer trimmed the deficit to 19–13 with 8:46 left in the first half.
Carolina finished the first half with a 22–6 run to take a 30–25 halftime lead, with Bacot scoring half the points. Bacot took a Davis pass and dunked in the final second.
The Tigers fell to No. 78 in the NET rankings after their 69–64 loss Saturday at Georgia Tech, making this a Quad 2 win instead of a Quad 1 victory.
The Tar Heels return home Saturday to face Florida State at 2 p.m. (ESPN). The Seminoles (13–9, 6–6) will take a four-game losing streak into Wednesday’s 9 p.m. home game against Pittsburgh. Since beating Miami 61–60 for its sixth consecutive victory on Jan. 22, Florida State has lost at Georgia Tech 75–61, at home to Virginia Tech 85–72, at Clemson 75–69 and at home Saturday to Wake Forest 68–60.
UNC 79, Clemson 77
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 3 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 19 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1-0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2 ACC||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2 ACC||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3 ACC||Las Vegas||Z — No. 5 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3 ACC||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||74–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACC||Home||Virginia|
|15||88–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACC||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||85–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACC||Road||Miami|
|22||98–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACC||Road||Wake Forest|
|24||78–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACC||Home||Virginia Tech|
|26||58–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACC||Home||Boston College|
|29||100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACC||Home||N.C. State|
|February (2–1, 2–1 ACC)|
|1||90–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACC||Road||Louisville|
|5||87–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACC||Home||No. 7 Duke|
|8||79–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACC||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 7 Duke|
Photo via @UNC_Basketball