Love’s big game gives UNC huge win at Virginia Tech

By R.L. Bynum

Where would Carolina be if Caleb Love played this well consistently?

If Love can keep delivering games like he did Saturday at Virginia Tech, there’s no telling how far that he can take the Tar Heels. Love scored 21 points and three 3-pointers, with a season-high seven assists, showing more maturity to create shots for teammates and wanting the ball in his hands at the end.

Carolina (19–8, 11–5 ACC) weathered a sloppy second-half scoring drought of more than seven minutes on its way to a huge 65–57 win at Cassell Coliseum. It was the sixth time UNC has held an opponent to fewer than 60 points this season but the first time on the road as the Hokies scored a season-low 57 points at home.

“This was his best game as a Carolina basketball player,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said of Love. “I know he played well against Duke last year but, to me, this was the best I’ve ever seen him play. He had a great understanding of when to pass and when to shoot and made great decisions.”

UNC’s unsettling place on the bubble after the loss to Pittsburgh got a shot of life with 8 of 22 shooting from 3-point range and 44.9% overall from the floor. It gave the Tar Heels a badly needed Quad 1 victory. The win also increased the chances of getting a double-bye in the ACC Tournament, which is essential with UNC’s short bench.

“I feel like we showed a lot of toughness, a lot of grit, coming into this with this atmosphere,” said Love, who tied his career-high assist total in ACC games, matching his total in both Duke games last season. “It’s tough to win, so I feel like we just played smart, we played hard and we played with a lot of effort.”

UNC is 11-0 when Love has at least five assists. He gave it back to the crowd as he was dribbling the clock out, yelling, “Let me hear you! Let me hear you!” The Hokies fans were loud earlier but they had nothing to say at that point.

“That was the game plan going into the game is to be poised in these types of situations and this atmosphere because the game can shift,” said Love, who made all six free-throw attempts and is shooting 84.2% at the line this season. “And it kind of shifted in the second half. We weren’t making as many buckets and they were scoring and the crowd was getting into it. So, we just had to come back together and play one play at a time. That was what we did. We were real poised. We never got rattled. And so we came out with a win.”

Love was happy with his effort after the way the Pittsburgh loss went for him and the rest of the team. The two turnovers were his fewest since he only had one each in successive home wins over Boston College and N.C. State in late January.

“I’ve been watching a lot of film on the bad shots I was taking and the turnovers,” said Love, who has been trying to figure out how to get UNC over the hump by cleaning up some of his mistakes in recent games. “I got downhill, broke the defense down, found the open man or created it for myself.”

Leaky Black, who had five points, three rebounds and two assists, said that Love’s struggles haven’t shaken him.

“He’s a confident kid. His confidence is off the charts, like no other I’ve really seen before,” Black said, noting that Love wanted the ball late. “In that moment, that really defines how confident and how highly he thinks of himself and how highly we think of him.”

Four starters scored in double figures for Carolina, with Brady Manek scoring 10 of his 14 points in the first 10 minutes.

Armando Bacot scored 12 points, all in the second half, and pulled down 15 rebounds for his 20th double-double of the season and 38th of his career (ninth-most in program history). It was his sixth game with at least 15 rebounds this season. He’s the sixth Tar Heel with 20 double-doubles in a season, joining Billy Cunningham (who did it twice), Antawn Jamison, Brice Johnson (school-record 23), Mitch Kupchak and Doug Moe.

Most double-doubles by a Tar Heel in a season

23                    Brice Johnson, 2015–16
22                    Billy Cunningham, 1963–64
21                    Antawn Jamison, 1997–98
20                    Armando Bacot, 2021–22
20                    Mitch Kupchak, 1974–75
20                    Billy Cunningham, 1962–63
20                    Doug Moe, 1960–61

“We’ve done a good job this year bouncing back but now we’re starting to get into crunch time,” said Bacot, who blocked five shots. “We’ve got to just figure out how to not have any lapses the rest of the season and lock-in. I feel like we’re kind of due for it, just how this season has gone, so up and down.”

RJ Davis had 10 points and two 3-pointers.

UNC held Virginia Tech to a season-low 5 of 26 from 3-point range (19.2%). The Hokies were second in the country in 3-point field-goal percentage (40.9%) coming into the game.

“I thought we were really good matching with them in transition,” Hubert Davis said. “They get threes in transition and we talk about our end-game defensively in transition — no layups or dunks and no pitch-ahead 3s — and we did a good job of that.”

The Tar Heels snapped a six-game win streak for the Hokies (16–11, 8–8).

Carolina won its fourth consecutive game against the Hokies with a regular-season sweep and snapped a two-game losing streak at Cassell Coliseum. Since the Tar Heels’ 81–75 loss Feb. 10, 1966, in Carmichael Auditorium, their only defeat against the Hokies outside of Blacksburg was an 81–80 overtime defeat at the Dean Smith Center on Feb. 13, 2007.

Manek, as he has done in at least two previous games, was the only Tar Heel scoring in the opening minutes. In the first 10 minutes, the only other UNC points came on Love’s deep 3-pointer with 13:20 left in the first half.

Black scored five consecutive points with a steal and two aggressive drives to spark a 14–2 run, which RJ Davis capped with a transition 3-pointer and a layup, to give UNC a 30–24 lead with 3:59 left in the first half.

Back-to-back 3s from Love and Davis pushed the lead to 10 before the Tar Heels took a 38–30 halftime lead.

UNC shot 51.9% in the first half and moved to 8–0 in games where they shoot at least 50% in the first half. UNC is 15–0 when leading at halftime.

Bacot was scoreless with one shot in the first half and didn’t score until the first 17 seconds of the second half.

Carolina pushed the lead to 47–33 with 14:36 left when Love’s layup and 3-pointer capped a 9–0 run. But by the time Bacot scored the Tar Heels’ next field goal on a follow shot with 7:12 left, UNC’s lead was down to 51–44. A Tech 7–0 run came with RJ Davis on the bench.

Keve Aluma led the Hokies with 16 points.

It’s a quick turnaround for the Tar Heels, who are back at the Dean Smith Center on Monday at 7 p.m. to face Louisville (ESPN). 

The Cardinals (12–14, 6–10), who lost in overtime on Feb. 1 in Louisville to UNC 90–83, snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 70–61 Saturday home win over Clemson. Louisville had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, with the previous win 67–54 at home against Boston College on Jan. 19.

UNC 65, Virginia Tech 57

ACC standings

UNC season statistics

DateScore, record/
day, time, TV
(current rank)
November (4–2)
583–55 exhibition winHomeElizabeth City State
983–67 win, 1–0HomeLoyola Maryland
1294–87 win, 2–0HomeBrown
1694–83 win, 3–0RoadCollege of Charleston
2093–84 loss, 3–1Uncasville, Conn.Y — No. 5 Purdue
2189–72 loss, 3–2Uncasville, Conn.Y — No. 16 Tennessee
2372–53 win, 4–2HomeUNC Asheville
December (5–1, 1-0 ACC)
172–51 win, 5–2HomeX — Michigan
579–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACCRoadGeorgia Tech
1180–63 win, 7–2 ACCHomeElon
1474–61 win, 8–2 ACCHomeFurman
1898–69 loss, 8–3 ACCLas VegasZ — No. 4 Kentucky
2170–50 win, 9–3 ACCHomeAppalachian State
January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)
291–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACCRoadBoston College
578–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACCRoadNotre Dame
874–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACCHomeVirginia
1588–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACCHomeGeorgia Tech
1885–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACCRoadMiami
2298–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACCRoadWake Forest
2478–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACCHomeVirginia Tech
2658–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACCHomeBoston College
29100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACCHomeN.C. State
February (4–2, 4–2 ACC)
190–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACCRoadLouisville
587–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACCHomeNo. 9 Duke
879–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACCRoadClemson
1294–74 win, 18–7, 10–4 ACCHomeFlorida State
1676–67 loss, 18–8, 10–5 ACCHomePittsburgh
1965–57 win, 19–8, 11–5 ACCRoadVirginia Tech
21Monday, 7, ESPNHomeLouisville
26Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2RoadN.C. State
28Monday, 7, ESPNHomeSyracuse
5Saturday, 6, ESPNRoadNo. 9 Duke
ACC TournamentBrooklyn
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic

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