The University of North Carolina men’s basketball team has now won 10 of its past 12 games after Tuesday night’s 72-68 win at Syracuse. The Tar Heels (15-6, 7-3 ACC) led by double-digits midway through the second half, but needed to make several big plays late to seal the game after the Orange took the lead with fewer than 90 seconds remaining.
UNC forward Leaky Black’s defense on Syracuse guard Joe Girard III forced him into four of the six turnovers he committed. But the last one was all on Girard, as his attempt to save the ball from going out of bounds was thrown right to Pete Nance for Carolina’s go-ahead score with 17.7 seconds remaining.
Here’s what we learned from the Heels’ win:
Road woes over?
Carolina picked up its second road win of the season in its second straight road game. The team’s next foray away from Chapel Hill will be that short trip down U.S. 15-501 to face Duke on Feb. 4.
UNC coach Hubert Davis didn’t think the Heels had a common issue on the road that led to previous losses.
They kind of did though.
Leading scorer and rebounder Armando Bacot hurt his shoulder early in the loss at Indiana and was primarily ineffective the rest of the game. That same injury kept him at entirely of their loss at Virginia Tech. And he was sidelined just two minutes into their loss at Virginia with a sprained ankle.
Pitt was their only road loss in which he played a complete game. The Heels squandered a nine-point lead in the second half of that loss. They nearly did the same against Syracuse, this time with a 10-point lead — but they made the plays late to win the game.
“We’ve got a long way to go, there’s a number of areas that we can improve on, but I feel like we’re getting better,” Davis said.
Davis said Carolina was essentially more disciplined in staying focused on their game plan than they were earlier in the season.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, we’ll find out how good we can become. But I like the direction that we’re going in.”
Shooting out of the slump
You known Caleb Love wouldn’t stay in a shooting slump, right? Love was shooting 26 percent from 3-point range and had made just 3 of his past 22 attempts entering the game. By the time the junior guard hit his third 3-pointer from the top of the key — accounting for nine of Carolina’s first 20 points — it was evident that his struggles were not continuing into Tuesday’s game with the Orange.
“I’ve just been working with Coach Lebo every morning,” Love said. “We wake up and I’m in the gym with him. An hour before practice, I’m in the gym with him. So it’s just been working. I told y’all I think after the Wake Forest game, just trust my work and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
It wasn’t just a matter of trusting his work. Love appeared to have more trust in the process as well. He didn’t force the action against the Syracuse zone, his shots came within the flow of the offense.
As a result, Love had his most efficient game of the Heels’ 10 ACC games. He finished 4-for-7 from the field with 15 points and added five assists.
Davis said he saw signs of Love emerging with how he shot the ball in practice.
“You can be struggling in practice, struggling in the game, once you start to find that rhythm in (practice), it doesn’t take long to find that to the court during the game,” Davis said. “He was in a really good rhythm at the beginning of the game and I’m really proud of him.”
Nickel played like a dime
Freshman forward Tyler Nickel logged just 12 minutes total in his previous six games — and that included games against Wake Forest and N.C. State in which he didn’t play at all.
But he turned in the best performance of all the reserves in playing 12 minutes against Syracuse. It was the first game he’d played more than 10 minutes since the Heels win over The Citadel on Dec. 13 and only the third time this season.
“He was not scared, he wasn’t nervous,” Davis said. “He wasn’t tentative on both ends of the floor. Unaffected by the crowd not affected by Syracuse’s length in the zone. He looked comfortable out there and confident.”
Nickel had a chase down block of a Judah Mintz layup attempt late in the first half that led directly to a transition dunk from Armando Bacot.
When Syracuse grabbed its first lead of the game at 42-41 early in the second half, Nickel responded with a 3-pointer from the right corner for his only basket in the game.
He also dished out his lone assist for a Pete Nance 3-pointer that gave Carolina its biggest lead of the game at 56-46.