By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — The struggles, the poor decisions and the bad defense over the first half of the season seem like a distant memory for Christian Keeling.
After three seasons at Charleston Southern, he came to Chapel Hill with a reputation as a dangerous scorer. But he seemed to have left that behind. Drives to the basket often became turnovers. That once-reliable jump shot seemed to have gotten lost in the transition from playing at a mid-major to playing for one of college basketball’s blue bloods at UNC and for Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams.
“Coach Williams never gave up on me,” said Keeling, who, at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds is a bit undersized to be playing at the 3 spot at the major college level. “I feel like he could easily, being this is a high major, just bury me in the bench. But he had faith in me. He always told me to shoot my shot.”
Former UNC point guard Kendall Marshall, who is part of the coaching staff, was one of many who encouraged Keeling to keep shooting and telling him that he was brought here to shoot and score.
Keeling went scoreless for the second time in his college career in the loss to Boston College. That began the Tar Heels’ seven-game losing streak. After that game, it all seemed to come together for Keeling. After scoring in double figures once as a Tar Heel before that (12 points on Dec. 18 at Gonzaga), he’s scored in double figures six of the last eight games (scoring nine in the other two).
Keeling made three clutch free throws in the loss to Virginia, but his impact was never more apparent than in Tuesday’s 85–79 victory to finish a regular-season sweep of N.C. State.
Keeling collected 16 points — his most as a Tar Heel — 7 rebounds, a block and an assist and hit a key jumper with 2:26 left.
“I thought that Christian gave us a big lift, to say the least,” Williams said. “The shot he took when they cut it down to four? I didn’t like it all but I loved it when it stumbled and stumbled and stumbled and went into the basket.”
UNC has blown many leads this season. But on Tuesday, it was the Tar Heels who erased a second-half Wolfpack lead with a 22–4 run with eight points from Keeling. Although N.C. State made it close in the end, Carolina finally finished well enough to preserve a victory.
“At this point, we had so many experiences of how did everything go bad? So, let’s just do the opposite of what we’ve been doing,” Keeling said. “So, I mean I guess that’s what we’re doing: made our free throws, got it inbounds, no silly turnovers.”
After averaging 4.4 points with a true shooting percentage of 39.5% and a 3-point-shooting percentage of 19.2% in the first 21 games, he’s at 12.4, 66.1% and 58.8% in the last seven games. He averaged 17.3, 17.6 and 18.7 points per game in his three seasons as a Buccaneer with true shooting percentages of 54.9%, 53.3% and 59.1%. He’s right at 50% after his recent surge.
Keeling says he never doubted himself.
“I wouldn’t say doubts. Maybe a little hesitant, but no doubts,” Keeling said.
Keeling started the first four games of the season when Brandon Robinson was recovering from an ankle injury. He replaced Andrew Platek in the starting lineup for the three games before coming off the bench Tuesday against N.C. State with Leaky Black starting at the 3 spot.
You might think the turnaround started with his shot starting to go in. That was a big part of it, but he says the catalyst for him was on the other end of the court.
“I started off on the defensive end,” Keeling said. “I think I improved my defense, and I think it led to offense and then I found my niche was the mid-range and I just opened up more shots, people anticipating that. So, me just getting more involved, then started having fun as you’ve seen me smiling more.
“At this point, I’ve just got to be confident in my shot. I know I’m going to shoot it. And a mid-range has been good to me over the couple weeks, opening a three-ball or driving. Whatever I can do to contribute to the team.”
Anybody who watched Keeling closely on the defensive end noticed he had trouble staying in front of his man and playing the sort of defense expected at Carolina. But the one who made sure Keeling knew about it was assistant coach Steve Robinson.
“Coach Rob is always on your defense,” Keeling said. “And he said in order for you to play good and lose yourself, you’ve got to do it on the defensive end. So, I just try to buy in on defense. And Coach Rob picks on me on defense in practice. And I love it because it makes me better.”
Senior Brandon Robinson is keenly aware that it takes time to learn the Carolina system and to know what’s expected of a player in different situations. Even with three seasons of college experience, it’s never an easy transition.
“He’s been stepping up this whole month, he’s been playing so great for us,” Robinson said. “He’s starting to figure the system out. It’s definitely difficult just to figure it out being somewhere else for three years and then just stepping into something new for a year. It takes time to figure it out. And he’s finally figuring it out. He’s playing with confidence and he’s in that groove, and he knows where he can get his shots and he knows his spots.”
Keeling is clearly happy that he’s now a key contributor, and he was among the most enthusiastic players on the court while celebrating big plays in Tuesday’s win over the Wolfpack.
“That’s my personality. I love to have fun,” he said. “I felt like I was just trying to think too much. Coach always says to lose yourself in the game and I just tried to come in and come off the bench, and you know, lift up,” Keeling said.
But he’s just glad to get a win. The 17 losses this season are more than he suffered at Charleston Southern the previous two seasons (18–16 and 15–16).
“I think it’s a little sweeter now after this little story about the struggles,” Keeling said. “Just got to be persevering and never giving up. I’m a big believer in believing anything can happen, so I’m not going to lose my faith. This is my last year.”
And Keeling now adds a badly needed dependable outside shooter for Carolina.
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