PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — At halftime, Caleb Love changed his shoes.
Twenty minutes into Friday’s Sweet 16 blue-blood bout with UCLA, the UNC men’s basketball team’s sophomore guard had just three points. He’d knocked down just one of his eight shot attempts. Facing a three-point deficit and the possibility of the Tar Heels getting sent home just short of a trip to New Orleans, something had to change.
So, Love changed his shoes.
During the break, UNC men’s basketball’s Director of Operations Eric Hoots reminded Love of an interesting tidbit — one the young guard immediately embraced.
“I never play good in the black shoes,” Love said.
Twenty minutes in black Jordans, twenty minutes in Carolina blue ones. 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 these sorts of things, trust in rituals and routines, or have your own pair of lucky socks, it might be easy to attribute Love’s second half explosion to the supernatural power of a color.
But that’s not all there was to his performance on Friday night.
“I didn’t even know he switched shoes,” Davis said. “I don’t think it was the shoes. One of the things that I said is that in any game, but specifically in big time games like this it has nothing to do with coaches, it’s about players just stepping up and making plays. Everybody that played made plays and Caleb made a lot.”
This is the Caleb Love experience: 7:48 to go, Love knocked down a three to tie the game at 56 and end one of many short-lived Bruin threats to take control of the game. Then, after six scoreless minutes for the guard, UCLA regained the lead.
With 1:40 to go, Love knocked down a three to tie it up. And then at 1:03 to go, Love took the ball toward the top of the key, 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 to lose my confidence level. When I’m out there I’m just in a mode — that’s what that was tonight.”
For the first time of the night, the Tar Heels were in control. The guard in Carolina blue shoes put them there, and the Tar Heels improved to 12-0 this season when Love scores 20 points or more.
“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 notice the stats, as impressive a 20 minutes as Love had, playing the full half and knocking down 10-16 from the field and five threes. But it’s equally key to notice just how Love was moving in those 20 minutes.
Made shots drew elation; sometimes he skipped, flexed and screamed. But missed ones, from Love or another source, were met with calmness.
Backpedaling down the court — regardless of the previous moment’s outcome — he pointed and directed his teammates into defensive position. After knocking down a shot, moments of joy would soon turn to intense focus after the ball was inbounded.
After a 28-point loss to Miami in January, Davis said that, at that moment, the team lacked a leader.
In March, with UNC one step away from its first Final Four appearance since 2017’s National Championship, this much is clear: As Love goes, so go the Tar Heels.
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