UCLA had absolutely no answer for Caleb Love. None. 

The Bruins built an early eight-point lead over the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels and for long stretches Friday night seemed in control. The pace of play was where the Bruins wanted it. North Carolina was missing shots. The break wasn’t killing the Bruins. UNC’s Brady Manek, red-hot in its first two wins, was cold from the floor. 

But the Bruins weren’t really creating stops so much as being given stops on the defensive end. Love and RJ Davis were a combined 3-for-15 shooting at the halftime break. Throw in Armando Bacot’s 3-for-7 open and the Tar Heels were lucky to be down just three going into the locker room at the half. 

Turns out they could have been down 10 at the half and it wouldn’t have mattered. Love was going to pull this team to the Elite Eight no matter what. 

He had three points at halftime. 

When the Tar Heels walked off the court celebrating a 73-66 win over UCLA, Love had 30.

He was unconscious shooting the ball in the second half—10-for-16 from the field and 5-for-9 from 3. North Carolina was able to do what Akron did to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round: involve UCLA’s bigs in ball-screen action, get the switch, and then take what was usually Cody Riley off the dribble. 

If UCLA tried to fight around the screen, Love popped off for 3. He took anyone and everyone to the cup. He finished or got himself to the line. UNC head coach Hubert Davis said afterward that he likes Love to play inside-out rather than just keep spraying 3s. 

Bruin head coach Mick Cronin said some of the layups his team gave Love were “inexplicable.”

“Feel like he got some good looks early and he knocked them down,” Jules Bernard said of Love’s second half. “When you give a player like that good looks and he starts knocking them down and getting in a rhythm, they can get hot. In this tournament, one hot player can send you home.”

The turning point came with a little over two minutes left. UCLA led 64-61 with 2:07 to play after a nifty drive from Tyger Campbell. 

Love missed a pull-up triple on UNC’s next possession, but Bacot saved the rebound as it was going out, flipping the ball back over his head and into play. Love buried the second chance to tie the game with 1:40. 

“That changed the game,” Cronin said. “We get that rebound, it’s a different (story). You never know what happens, but obviously that’s going to keep me up at night.”

Jaime Jaquez Jr., playing after a sprained ankle suffered in the Bruins’ second-round win, missed a corner triple on UCLA’s next possession, and less than 20 seconds later Love was drilling another triple from the wing to give the Tar Heels the lead.

UCLA called time and Cronin drew up a set to get Jaquez isolated on the block. The Bruins tried to run through Jaquez all game as has become their M.O. down the closing stretch this season, but he was clearly bothered by something—be it the ankle or conditioning or UNC’s physicality. Jaquez turned over his left shoulder just under the restricted arc and left the baby hook short. 

It was one of a number of inside looks the Bruins have hit this season that just wouldn’t fall. Jaquez finished 5-for-18 from the field and 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. 

“The truth is we had a lot of good execution and the ball didn’t go in,” Cronin said.

As the clock ran under 45 seconds to play, UCLA opted to play the possession out and not send UNC to the charity stripe. A 15-second difference between the shot clock and the game clock would have given the Bruins a chance. Cronin had a timeout in his pocket. UCLA just needed a stop. 

Love gave the ball up to Davis, UNC got Riley switched out onto him some 40 feet from the basket, and then Davis took him to the hole. He put the brakes on and threw up a floater that rolled just off the front of the rim. Because of the cross-matching, Jaquez was trying to block out Bacot under the hoop. 

The bigger Bacot got the rebound and the putback. With 16 seconds to go and UNC up five, that all but sealed the deal. North Carolina finished with 15 offensive boards and 19 second-chance points. 

“We knew that was going to be the biggest problem,” Cronin said. “I told them all of this isn’t going to matter if we can’t get the rebound. We didn’t get the job done on the defensive glass. They’ve got too much firepower to give them second shots. 

“It would be fitting that our downfall, where we had the lead, was another offensive rebound.”

Cronin said the team was heartbroken after the game, but he told them to keep their heads high. The season ends at 27-8. 

Maybe that feels like a disappointment after last year’s Final Four run. Johnny Juzang, on fire last time but wasn’t ever able to get himself going the same way this tourney run, was visibly distraught. But Cronin conveyed nothing but optimism as he wrapped things up.

“They’ve restored UCLA to the national scene,” he said. “My message to them was you can’t let people say, ‘Well, you didn’t win it all this year, your season’s not a success.’ That’s a ludicrous statement. Although I came to UCLA to try to get this 12th title and I’m not going to leave until I do, … their lesson has got to be, ‘Did they give their best effort? And the answer is yes. 

“These guys did a great job of making UCLA basketball relevant again. I’m very proud of them.”