By Owen Kaelble | @OwenKaelble
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS – For North Carolina sophomore guard Caleb Love, Saturday night’s national semifinal victory over Duke was a tale of not only a historical night, but also a game of star crossed connections for the Love family between both the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils.
Love was born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., a hotbed of basketball talent home to seven-time NBA All-Star and Finals MVP Jo Jo White, three-time NBA All-Star Bradley Beal, three-time NBA All-Star Jayson Tatum and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Bradley.
Love ended up attending Christian Brothers College High School, a Lasallian Catholic college preparatory school and joined their basketball team. The team is coached by Justin Tatum, Jayson Tatum’s dad. Jayson attended Chaminade College Prep in nearby Creve Coeur, Mo., a suburb of downtown St. Louis. After high school, he went on to play for Duke.
With the connection to Duke already in place, Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski began to recruit Love and, according to Love, came to watch him play in Atlanta. Things changed, however, when fellow recruit and Virginia native Jeremy Roach entered the picture. When that happened, explained Love in a press conference in the Caesars Superdome on Sunday afternoon, the recruitment was off. In the end, Love headed to Chapel Hill, rather than up the road to the Duke campus in Durham.
Love became a heavily sought-after recruit. He was Missouri’s 2020 Gatorade High School Player of the Year, earned McDonald’s All-American honors, and was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Metro Player of the Year. In the history of Christian Brothers College High School, he was only the second player to earn McDonald’s All-American honors, with the other player being former NBA player Larry Hughes.
After Saturday night, it’s safe to say that everything worked out. Love scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half against Duke, with the biggest being the dagger 3-pointer that sealed the game with 25 seconds left and closed the book on Coach K’s storied career.
“One of the many things that I love about Caleb is he wants to be on the biggest stage,” said head North Carolina basketball coach Hubert Davis. “I’ve been a part of a number of, in terms of atmosphere, big time atmospheres as a player and as a coach. Last night it was right there. And that’s where Caleb wants to be. And there’s very few players that want to be on that stage all the time and Caleb does.”
It was also an important night for another reason. Love’s grandfather, Benny Shelby, passed away last summer. In addition to his parents who, according to Love, attend every game, Shelby was also just as important an influence in his life.
“He’s with me every step of the way,” said Love. “I’m always looking up to him, always. I want to continue to make him proud.”
Throughout the tournament, Love has done that on the court. The junior has scored 100 points in five games in the tournament, shooting 42.6% from the field, including 18 3-pointers. He has also grabbed 17 rebounds and has dished out 12 assists.
Even in the few games in the tournament when he has not lit up the scoreboard, Love believes that he can contribute in different ways.
“Even if I have a bad game, I do feel like I make plays down the stretch,” said Love.
Davis praised his 6-4 junior for having the strength to move on to the next play.
“He has an unbelievable ability to move on to the next play, the next possession,” said Davis. “So, he could – I think he airballed in the second half and then come down and shoot that shot over Mark Williams. He could turn the ball over and next thing make a really good pass. His ability to move on to the next play is brilliant. And I’m just really happy for him.”
Monday night Love will face a Kansas team that he said may be faster down the floor than the Tar Heels. In Davis’ opinion, the speed of the Jayhawks will be one of the biggest challenges in the battle for the title.
“Defensively I think the biggest thing is transition defense,” said Davis. “On film, they appear to be the fastest transition team I’ve seen this year. Whether it’s on made or missed baskets, they sprint to offense.”
Until then, Love can remember his shot that etched a new chapter in the historic rivalry with Duke and gave college basketball fans a night and moment that will live on for years. Unsurprisingly, the 3-pointer heard around the state of North Carolina ranks at the top of his favorite shots so far in his career.
“Number one for sure,” he said.