‘Not a kiddie ride’: Caleb Love’s clutch turn lifts UNC past Syracuse in OT roller coaster

CHAPEL HILL — With cheerful relief emanating from him, Hubert Davis, after the up-and-down drama that made Monday night anything but tame, compared his first season as North Carolina basketball coach to the thrills and chills offered at an amusement park.

“It’s not a kiddie ride,” he said. “You know the teacups, where you just sit there and laugh a little bit? I don’t know if you guys remember at Kings Dominion, the ‘Rebel Yell’ or the ‘Cobra.’ That’s what college coaching is, and so you have to find joy in how hard it is to be the best that you can be.”

Yet again, the same certainly sufficed for Caleb Love’s experience, bouts of motion sickness and all.

Love struggled until the game — and perhaps the Tar Heels’ very NCAA Tournament hopes — hung by a thread, then suddenly delivered a finishing flurry full of confidence that fueled North Carolina’s 88-79 overtime survival of Syracuse in an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball roller coaster at the Smith Center.

Brady Manek scored 22 points, Armando Bacot supplied 17 points and 18 rebounds, RJ Davis added 17 points on the strength on five 3-pointers, and Leaky Black chipped in seven rebounds and seven assists to go along with eight points, as the Tar Heels overcame Syracuse forward Cole Swider’s 36-point outburst, the top scoring performance in an ACC game this season.

But it was Love’s unwavering belief that emerged in full down the stretch, despite the stumbles he encountered. Even with North Carolina inviting the danger of falling in its regular-season home finale, and thus teetering on the brink of suffering a loss that could sink its postseason résumé into peril.

“It’d been an off night for me,” Love said, “but I’d never lost my confidence.”

He pumped in 14 of his 21 points across the final 2½ minutes of regulation and overtime, an exceedingly clutch closing statement during which he connected on four of his last five shots, including three significant 3-pointers. He buried a pair of stone-cold 3s at the end of regulation, each one wiping out a deficit and vaulting North Carolina into the lead.

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The Tar Heels (22-8 overall, 14-5 ACC) clinched no worse than the No. 4 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament, maintained their positioning on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, and will turn their attention to Saturday night’s regular-season finale against rival Duke, the farewell game at Cameron Indoor Stadium for Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“Just wanting to win for my team,” Love said of his motivation Monday night during crunch time. “It’s going into March and we’re getting closer and closer to win-or-go-home. These moments are preparing us for those type of games in March Madness and the ACC Tournament. I’m not worried about what my stats are or anything else, I want to get the win. Whatever my team needs me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”

So never mind that the sophomore guard checked in at just 2-for-14 from the field, including 1-for-8 from 3-point range, before summoning the heroics that helped save Senior Night for Manek and Black.

“He has complete confidence in being able to step up,” Hubert Davis said of Love. “The shots that he made, there’s very few guys that can make those shots, but more importantly, there’s very few guys that are willing to take those shots in those type of situations.

“We had no chance of winning without the plays that he made, and we have no chance of being the team that we are without the year that Caleb has been having.”

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Love buried the 3 that allowed North Carolina to reach overtime, a long-distance swish from well beyond the arc with 7.2 seconds remaining in regulation. “That was ridiculous,” Bacot said, smiling. That lifted the Tar Heels from trailing 71-70 to leading 73-71. Syracuse guard Joe Girard sank a jumper off the dribble over RJ Davis with 1.4 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

“All season, he’s hit those shots,” the grinning Bacot said, practically shaking his head at Love’s exploits. “I guess you’ve got to live and die with it, and today we lived.”

Syracuse (15-15, 9-10) opened the night on a 9-0 run out of the gate and outscored North Carolina 10-1 to start the second half. But in overtime, Love nailed a deep 3-pointer from right of the key and RJ Davis drilled a 3 off a feed from Black, part of an 8-0 spurt that moved North Carolina ahead 81-73 and prompted a timeout from Orange coach Jim Boeheim.

The senior Swider came up one point shy of matching the single-game scoring record in this building, held by La Salle all-time great Lionel Simmons (37 points here in January 1988). Swider went 14-for-21 from the field while pouring in seven 3s, delivering the most explosive effort of his college career, two nights after scoring just two points in Syracuse’s blowout loss to Duke.

Buddy Boeheim and Jimmy Boeheim provided a combined 24 points for the visiting Orange.

The Tar Heels improved to 15-2 at home this season. Love’s season has been marked by nine 20-point games and also a prolonged shooting slump that lasted eight games. Bacot, the ACC’s leading rebounder, has grabbed 15 or more boards in four straight games.

The senior swingman Black started and played 44 of the game’s 45 minutes two nights after an injury (hyper-extended right knee) knocked him out of North Carolina’s victory at North Carolina State late in the first half.

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Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at asmith@thetimesnews.com or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Times-News: UNC basketball survives Syracuse in OT behind Caleb Love’s big finish