PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — At halftime, Caleb Love changed his shoes.
Twenty minutes into Friday’s Sweet 16 fight with UCLA, the UNC men’s basketball sophomore guard had just three points. He had only knocked down one of his eight shot attempts. Facing a three-point deficit and the possibility of the Tar Heels being sent home just before a trip to New Orleans, something had to change.
So Love changed her shoes.
During the break, UNC men’s basketball operations director Eric Hoots reminded Love of an interesting treat — one the young guard immediately adopted.
“I never play well in black shoes,” Love said.
Twenty minutes in black Jordans, twenty minutes in Carolina blues. Three points in one half, 27 the next.
“I’m going to give (Hoots) a raise,” head coach Hubert Davis said.
If you believe in the magic of this stuff, trust rituals and routines, or have your own pair of lucky socks, it might be easy to attribute Love’s second half-burst to the supernatural power of a color.
But that’s not all there was to his Friday night performance.
“I didn’t even know he had changed shoes,” Davis said. “I don’t think it’s the shoes. One of the things I said is that in any game, but especially in big games like this, it has nothing to do with the coaches, it’s just for players to step up and make plays. Everyone who has played has made plays and Caleb has done a lot.
That’s Caleb Love’s experience: 7:48 to go, Love knocked down a three to tie the game at 56 and end one of the Bruins’ many short-lived threats to take control of the game. Then, after six minutes without a goal for the guard, UCLA regained the lead.
With 1:40 to go, Love knocked down a three to tie. And then with 1:03 to go, Love took the ball up the sideline, dribbled to his right and buried another.
“That was really my confidence level,” Love said. “That’s the best part of my game is not losing my level of confidence. When I’m there, I’m just in a mode – that’s what it was tonight.
For the first time all night, the Tar Heels were in control. The blue-shoeed Carolina guard put them there, and the Tar Heels improved to 12-0 this season when Love scores 20 or more points.
“I think for all of us, we just tried to get out of his way and let him work,” junior forward Armando Bacot said.
It’s important to note the stats, as impressive as Love’s 20 minutes, playing the whole half and knocking down 10-16 from the field and five threes. But it’s also essential to notice how much Love was moving during those 20 minutes.
The shots made drew elation; sometimes he jumped, flexed and screamed. But those missed, from Love or another source, were met with calm.
Stepping back down the field – regardless of the outcome of the previous moment – he pointed and directed his teammates into a defensive position. After knocking down a shot, the moments of joy quickly turned into intense focus after the ball was touched.
After a 28-point loss to Miami in January, Davis said the team was lacking a leader at that point.
In March, with UNC one step away from its first Final Four appearance since the 2017 national championship, all is clear: As love goes, so do the Tar Heels.
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