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NEW ORLEANS – If Monday night’s national championship game comes down to one possession, and North Carolina has the ball against Kansas, look for Love.
North Carolina guard Caleb Love will not be shy. He will take the shot. He may not be having a great night. He may have missed his last two or three with an air ball, but he will take the last shot.
“One of the many things I love about Caleb,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said Sunday with no detectable pun intended, “is he wants to be on the biggest stage.”
That is tonight at the Superdome (9:20 p.m. eastern, TBS) when No. 8 seed North Carolina (29-9) meets No. 1 seed Kansas (33-6) … for all the love.
“I’ve been a part of a number of big-time atmospheres as a player and as a coach,” Davis, a former North Carolina shooting guard and assistant coach, said. “And Saturday night, it was right there.”
Love, a sophomore from St. Louis, hit a clutch three-pointer with 24.8 seconds to play for a 78-74 lead over Duke Saturday. Then he hit two free throws with eight seconds to go for the 81-77 win in the Final Four national semifinal in front of 70,602 at the Dome, finishing with a game-high 28 points.
“That’s where Caleb wants to be,” Davis said. “And there are very few players who want that stage all the time. And Caleb does.”
Love was 2 of 9 from three-point range before he launched that last one. He had missed his previous trey nearly eight minutes previously and two in a row before that. But while Love is not blind, he does have a short memory.
“He has an unbelievable ability to move on to the next play, next possession,” Davis said. “I think he air-balled one in the second half, and then he came down and shot. He could turn the ball over and next make a really great pass.”
Love is North Carolina’s No. 2 scorer at 16 points a game behind center Armando Bacot’s 16.3 average, but he is just fifth on the team in field goal percentage at .378 with guards Leaky Black (.465) and R.J. Davis (.430) ahead of him. He also leads the team in turnovers comfortably with 102 — 28 more than Bacot, though he is second in assists with 137 to Davis’ 140.
And Love is last in three-point field goal percentage (.368) of the main three who have taken more than 65 shots from beyond the arc. He trails Davis (.377) and forward Brady Manek (.401). But Love has taken the most three-pointers with 250 to 237 by Manek and 175 by Davis.
“He’s going to keep shooting,” R.J. Davis said. “We all do. We all have confidence, but Caleb really doesn’t care if he has missed a few. He’s going to keep shooting, no matter what. Others, we may be more careful.”
Efficiency may not be his game. He hit just 34 of 128 from three-point range as a freshman last season for a .266 percentage and shot only at a .316 pace from the field overall. But he is No. 1 in the guts category, or maybe he is just delusional.
“Never losing your confidence,” he said when asked about his mentality. “I feel like my confidence never wavers. I know I can come up big in late moments and do what I do. Even if I haven’t been playing well in the game.”
Against Syracuse on Feb. 28, Love missed 13 of his first 17 shots and eight of his first 10 from 3-point range. But with eight seconds to play in regulation, he made a three-pointer for a 73-71 lead. After Syracuse tied and sent it into overtime, Love made another three-pointer and a short jumper in the Tar Heels’ 88-79 win.
The three-pointer against Duke could be remembered forever in Final Four annals, but particularly in North Carolina-Duke lore.
“No. 1, for sure,” Love said.
“I’m really happy for him,” Coach Davis said. “He’s always wanted to be in this position. He’s always wanted to make big shots in big-time situations. And I’m just really proud of him.”
Kansas coach Bill Self is expecting a plethora of threes from North Carolina.
“It’s shocking to me,” he said. “We’ve shot 91 threes as a team in the Tournament. Manek and Love have shot 90 by themselves. It’s amazing.”
Love is 18 of 50 from three-point range in North Carolina’s five NCAA Tournament games for a .360 percentage. Manek is 17 of 40 for .425.
“Brady and Caleb have arguably been the two best players in the Tournament,” Self said.
Love has hit double figures 32 times this season and had a season-high 30 against UCLA in North Carolina’s third game of the Tournament.
“I feel like I can get past my defender any time I want to,” he said. “I feel like that’s my best attribute. Getting downhill helps my outside shot.”
He has been doing that since middle school when he got hooked to prime time. His father Dennis Love was coaching the team and called his son’s number during a tournament in Indiana.
“We were down two with four seconds left,” Love said. “Dade drew up a play for me. I shot the three. I hit the shot, and we won the tournament. It’s just kind of a thing that I’ve been used to. Now, that we’ve got one more game left, I’m kind of built for that moment.”