By R.L. Bynum
PHILADELPHIA — Carolina rode the full Caleb Love Experience into the Elite Eight.
Love scored 12 consecutive UNC points in one second-half stretch and his back-to-back 3-pointers in the last 1:40 propelled the No. 8-seed Tar Heels to a 73–66 victory over No. 4-seed and 11th-ranked UCLA on Friday night in an East Regionals semifinal at the Wells Fargo Center.
Love, who was 1 of 8 in the first half, willed Carolina into the Elite Eight by producing an elite-level second-half performance with 27 of his career-high 30 points. Armando Bacot’s tip-in with 15.5 seconds put the game away.
“Just confidence level,” Love said, explaining his monster second half. “Never lose my confidence level. Coach [Hubert] Davis and my teammates always tell me that. I feel like that’s the best part of my game is not to lose my confidence level. And when I’m out there, I’m just in a mode, and that’s what that was tonight.”
Was it the shoes? At the urging of Eric Hoots, the program’s director of operations, Love changed shoes at halftime.
“Hoots told me to change them because I never play good in the black shoes, so he told me to change them, and it worked out,” said Love, who dished out a team-high four assists while playing all 40 minutes.
Hubert Davis suggested a raise was in order for Hoots after Love became the 14th Tar Heel to score 30 in an NCAA tournament game and the first Tar Heel to score 27 in a half since Luke Maye did it in the second half at N.C. State in 2018.
The No. 8-seed Tar Heels (27–9) advanced to Sunday’s 5:05 p.m. East Regional final (CBS) against underdog No. 15-seed St. Peter’s (22–11), which beat No. 3-seed and 10th-ranked Purdue 67–64 in Friday’s first semifinal.
Hubert Davis joins Bill Guthridge as the second first-year UNC head coach to reach a regional final. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1986, Kent State’s Stan Heath (2002) and UCLA’s Steve Lavin (1997) also did it.
“I just really am not thinking about myself at all,” Coach Davis said. “I’m just really happy for them. 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, and I’ve told them definitively and a number of times, that’s what I want from them.”
Carolina’s 129th NCAA tournament victory tied Kentucky for the most all-time and advanced the Tar Heels to their 28th regional final. With Miami’s win over Iowa State, the ACC has nearly half of the Elite Eight after Duke advanced on Thursday.
Bacot put up his 28th double-double of the season (14 points and 15 rebounds) to leave him one shy of the single-season ACC record by Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.
“In the under-four-minute timeout, Coach Davis just told us to give our all,” Bacot said. “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. 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.”
Brady Manek scored 13 points on 5 of 13 shooting to reach 2,002 career points and RJ Davis added 12.
“We had set plays that were able to pick apart the defense and get the mismatches we wanted,” said RJ Davis, who had three assists. “I think I did a good job of finding open teammates, and I knew when Caleb was hot to keep him keep going. I told him to keep going. I gave him the pull at one point and then he just hit like four in a row, I think it was. It was a great run.”
With Davis scoring 30 against Baylor, it’s the first time in program history that two UNC players have scored 30 in the same NCAA tournament.
When Love got hot, everybody was trying to find ways to get him more shots.
“My main focus was really just trying to save good swings and getting him open and trying to get the switch on the big,” Bacot said. “And then just being on the weak side, so if they drove, I knew he would get it to me to try to get the rebound if he missed a shot. But I think for all of us, we just tried to get out of his way and just let him work.”
UNC took a 10–5 lead in the first four minutes on 3-pointers from Love and Bacot and layups from Bacot and Manek. UCLA responded with a 17–4 run behind six points from Johnny Juzang to take a 22–14 lead.
“Things weren’t going offensively in the first half for us and Coach Davis told us, we’re still in this and to stay with it,” said Love, whose 11 field goals were a career-high.
His 24 shots were also a career-high, the fourth-most by a Tar Heel in an NCAA tournament game and the most since Charlie Scott attempted 26 in 1969 in the Final Four consolation game against Drake.
“Shots weren’t falling,” Love said. “We were getting great shots, and we just weren’t hitting them. So Coach Davis told us to keep our confidence up and keep shooting, getting great shots and that’s what we did.”
An RJ Davis jumper with 8:13 left ended a 4½-minute scoring drought. Back-to-back 3s by Manek and Davis cut the lead to two. A short Bacot jumper with 1:57 left in the first half trimmed the Bruins’ lead to one, but UCLA took a 31–28 halftime lead.
Five points from Love and four points from Bacot fueled a 9–4 UNC run in the first 2½ minutes of the second half to take a one-point lead. But a 6–0 Bruins run gave them a 42–37 edge.
Three RJ Davis free throws tied it at 42, then he also hit a jumper.
Love was feeling it after two spectacular, twisting drives and an NBA-length 3-pointer midway through the second half. He scored 12 consecutive UNC points to tie it at 56 with 7:48 left. Five Love points started a 10–4 UNC run that Manek’s 3-pointer capped to give the Tar Heels a 61–60 edge with 4:23 remaining.
Back-to-back Love 3-pointers gave UNC a 67–64 lead with 58.2 seconds left.
UNC has won six consecutive games against UCLA and leads the series 11–3. It was the Tar Heels’ 17th consecutive win over a Pac 12 opponent.
UNC 73, No. 11 UCLA 66
At Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
Sunday’s regional final
No. 8 North Carolina (27–9) vs. No. 15 St. Peter’s (22–11), 5:05 p.m., CBS
At AT&T Center, San Antonio
Saturday’s regional final
No. 5 Houston (28–7) vs. No. 2 Villanova (29–7), 6:09 p.m., TBS
At United Center, Chicago
Sunday’s regional final
No. 1 Kansas (31–6) vs. No. 10 Miami (26–10), 2:20 p.m., CBS
At Chase Center, San Francisco
Saturday’s regional final
No. 4 Arkansas (28–8), vs. No. 2 Duke (31–6), 8:49 p.m., TBS
At Superdome, New Orleans
Saturday, April 2 national semifinals
West winner vs. East winner
South winner vs. Midwest winner
Monday, April 4 final
Semifinal winners, TBA
time, day, 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. 10 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 5 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. 7 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 (7–2, 7–2 ACC)|
|1||90–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACC||Road||Louisville|
|5||87–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACC||Home||No. 9 Duke|
|8||79–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACC||Road||Clemson|
|12||94–74 win, 18–7, 10–4 ACC||Home||Florida State|
|16||76–67 loss, 18–8, 10–5 ACC||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||65–57 win, 19–8, 11–5 ACC||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||70–63 win, 20–8, 12–5 ACC||Home||Louisville|
|26||84–74 win, 21–8, 13–5 ACC||Road||N.C. State|
|28||88–79 OT win, 22–8, 14–5 ACC||Home||Syracuse|
|5||94–81 win, 23–8, 15–5 ACC||Road||No. 9 Duke|
|— ACC Tournament —|
|10||63–43 win, 24–8||Brooklyn||Virginia|
|11||72–59 loss, 24–9||Brooklyn||Virginia Tech|
|— NCAA tournament —|
|17||95–63 win, 25–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Marquette|
|19||93–86 OT win, 26–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Baylor|
|25||73–66 win, 27–9||Philadelphia||No. 11 UCLA|
|27||5:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS||Philadelphia||St. Peter’s|
Photo via @UNC_Basketball