CHAPEL HILL — Caleb Love hit a season-saving shot as UNC kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive with an 88-79 win over Syracuse on Senior Day in the Smith Center.
After forcing a turnover on a Syracuse inbounds, the Tar Heels got the ball back with 15.1 seconds remaining in regulation, trailing by one. Carolina appeared to be setting up for a final shot near the buzzer when Love suddenly put up a long 3-point attempt with nine seconds left on the clock. He was 3-of-16 in the game.
“Very few guys that can make those shots,” said UNC coach Hubert Davis, “but there’s very few guys that can take those shots.”
The shot was good, giving UNC the lead and setting up a game-tying layup by Syracuse’s Joseph Girard with just under two seconds remaining to force overtime.
Love continued his big game heroics in the extra time, hitting another 3 and scoring eight of UNC’s 15 points in overtime.
“That was kind of gangster to take that shot, I can’t lie,” said Armando Bacot. “To put us on his back and lead us to victory was huge and just big-time.”
“Coach told us to take the first open one so we could get the rebound if we missed,” Love said. “So that’s what I did. As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was good.”
The win avoided what would have been a crippling loss for the Tar Heels, who remain on the NCAA bubble. Hopes of an at-large bid took a hit last week when UNC lost at home to Pitt, a Quad IV opponent — the NCAA Selection Committee’s lowest valuation available. Syracuse was a Quad III team, and another bad loss would have all but required Carolina to win the ACC Tournament to make the NCAAs.
“We knew we had to pull it through in the end,” said Bacot.
The Tar Heels came back from a 9-0 game-opening run by Syracuse and survived a career-best 36-point outing from Syracuse’s Cole Swider, who hit 14 of 21 from the field, including 7 of 11 from 3-point range. Love’s overtime explosion included drawing Swider’s fifth foul with 1:33 remaining.
Love finished with 21 points and six rebounds. UNC also got a boost from Brady Manek, who was honored, along with Leaky Black and Ryan McAdoo, in a pregame Senior Day ceremony. Manek scored a team-high 22 points. Bacot had 17 points and 18 rebounds, tying the single-season UNC record for double-doubles. RJ Davis added 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting from 3-point range.
The Tar Heels will finish the regular season at Duke on Saturday and then head to Brooklyn for the ACC Tournament, with both venues giving the team plenty of opportunities to add to their tournament resume — thanks to Love’s late rally.
“I don’t shoot a shot I think I’m gonna miss,” he said.
“I guess you’ve got to live and die with it,” said Bacot, “and today we lived.”