basketball

Lucas: A Deep Breath – University of North Carolina Athletics

By Adam Lucas

SYRACUSE—If you think Tuesday was a long game, consider that the victory actually began on Sunday afternoon around 1:30 pm.

That’s when Caleb Love arrived at the Smith Center for an individual shooting session with assistant coach Jeff Lebo. The duo have been working out twice a day over the last few weeks, even as Love has struggled with his shot.

But Sunday looked different. Sunday, Love’s shots weren’t just going in—they were going straight into the heart of the basket, ripping through the net almost every time. He alternated taking a series of three-pointers with a set of free throws, rotation after rotation, Lebo and Tar Heel managers Alex Pardue and Will Lam feeding him the ball again and again.

No one ever sees these moments. But you could tell in the way that Lebo and Love boisterously high-fived after one particularly deadeye series of trifectas that something was different.

“Stay the course,” Love said with a grind after the workout.

Tuesday night, it paid off. On a relatively quiet night by his standards (he finished with 15 points but needed just seven shots to do it), Love hit three first half three-pointers in a terrific Tar Heel offensive start against the Syracuse 2-3 zone, propelling them to a quick lead and silencing the traditionally well lubricated JMA Wireless Dome crowd.

Love’s early shooting forced the Orange to respect him in their zone, opening the middle around the ACC logo—where they should really paint a Tar Heel foot for all the damage Carolina has done there in this building—for Pete Nance and the rest of the Tar Heels to operate.

“At the beginning of the game, the way we were moving the basketball offensively we were getting any shot we wanted,” Hubert Davis Jones told Angell on the Tar Heel Sports Network after the game. “We were getting open threes, open jump shots around the free throw line or getting the ball to the basket in the low post.”

It was gorgeous basketball, featuring assists on Carolina’s first ten baskets of the game. When Davis is showing future Tar Heel teams how to attack the Syracuse zone, likely coached by Jim Boeheim in the year 2044, he’ll use those first ten baskets as the clip tape.

Little did we know that the beauty of the early offense would soon give way to a slugfest. If Saturday was a typical ACC Saturday afternoon game, this felt more like a typical Big East Monday night game. You almost expected John Thompson or Lou Carnesecca to walk through the tunnel and take a seat on the bench.

It had a little bit of everything, and a little too much of some things (monitor reviews).

RJ Davis He suffered three different injuries—a blow to the face, a dislocated finger on his shooting hand, and a hard shot to the eye—and still managed to score nine points, hand out five assists, and be Carolina’s second-leading rebounder with five.

It was Davis who stepped in to absorb an elbow from Judah Mintz in the game’s closing seconds to earn a nasty looking cut and a flagrant foul on Mintz (and don’t forget that it was also Davis who defended Mintz with under a minute to go , forcing another miss from the freshman).

Carolina has simply looked more cohesive lately than they did before ACC play began, whether it was Love pointing Nance to the exact right spot in the middle of the zone in the second half and then feeding him a pass in the right place for him to operate , or Armando Bacot and Leaky Black Exchanging a subtle look on the middle block during Nance’s free throw with 21.4 seconds left and the Heels down one. When the ball caromed off the rim, then, Bacot and Black already knew the battle for the offensive rebound was on, with Bacot absorbing a couple of Orange and Black soaring to make the play that led to Nance’s go-ahead hoop.

“The last couple of weeks, we’ve been stressing staying together and staying connected for the whole game,” said Nance, who was so essential that he played all 40 minutes. “We have a group of veteran and experienced guys…We’re starting to have that experience together now, and when we come together we’re really hard to beat.”

For that reason, you almost hate to see this weekend’s open date approaching. With the Tar Heels having won 10 of 12, maybe it would be better to keep the games coming. But the Tar Heels need to get healthy—a week off for RJ Davis will be huge, and Carolina can use Puff Johnson back in the rotation.

Hubert Davis traditionally has a particularly strong feel for what his team needs from him—he drew a cheer in the locker room when he announced an unscheduled upcoming off day—and he described this weekend as only he can.

“We’re going to get some breathing room for our soul,” he said, “and get ready for next week. It’s an opportunity for us to get out and practice and not be tied to a scout. We can work on us. We can identify the things we do well, and improve on those things. And we can look at the things we don’t do well or do consistently and try to make those strengths.”

With half the ACC season gone, Carolina has played through a series of injuries—including the squad’s Player of the Year candidate missing two of the three conference losses—and is in position to make a second-half push for the regular season crown. There has been very little time to enjoy it; because of some early-season losses, every victory feels like it’s been followed not by jubilation but by immediately focusing on the next must-win contest.

The league title chase begins next week with a home date against Pitt. For now, though, the goal is simple. Davis looked around at the cramped Dome locker room, which included RJ Davis sprawled on a training table getting medical attention and a variety of other players nursing nagging injuries.

“We’re going to rest our bodies,” Hubert Davis said, “and we’re going to take a deep breath.”

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