With 16 seconds left in Carolina’s final home game on Feb. 28, Syracuse had the ball and a one-point lead. A loss to the Orange, followed by a then-presumed loss at Duke, would have left the Tar Heels at 21-10, a 13-7 ACC record, and quite likely on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble headed into the ACC Tournament .
The Carolina-Syracuse game had been a compelling exhibit of highly skilled offensive basketball, from both teams. Cole Swider scored 36 points, including seven made threes, for the Orange, and the visitors shot 49% from the field with 11 turnovers while playing his solid brand of zone defense.
The Tar Heels had played hard to overcome early deficits and stay in the game, but after Brady Manek’s missed jumper in the final minute, it looked like Syracuse would be celebrating on the Smith Center floor at the final buzzer.
What happened next was in effect the start of Carolina’s marvelous March: a Syracuse turnover on the in-bounds play, then Carolina pushing the ball into the frontcourt for a timeout. On the restart, Caleb Love took a deep, gasp-inspiring three — and made it. Syracuse then pushed the ball downcourt and made a two to send the game to overtime, but Carolina had saved the game, as well as its postseason aspirations.
The Tar Heels went on to win in overtime convincingly with good shooting as Swider fouled out and Syracuse ran out of gas. Then a few days later in Durham, Carolina pulled one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season with its emphatic and convincing defeat of a top-five Duke team, in Cameron.
That game was a performance for the ages, but it is the Syracuse game that sticks in my mind as the model for how Hubert Davis has shaped this team into a genuine national contender. Think back to the start of the year, when most observers expected names like Dawson Garcia, Anthony Harris, Dontrez Styles, and Kerwin Walton would be either starters or major contributors.
It hasn’t worked out that way, for a variety of reasons. Garcia and Harris have not been available since early January. The growth of both Caleb Love and RJ Davis in the backcourt and the vast improvement in the three-point shooting of Love, as well as the indispensable defensive presence of Leaky Black, has meant a radically reduced role for Walton. It has taken time for Styles to earn extended minutes and carve out valuable minutes as a live-wire rebounder who is also capable of putting the ball in the basket when given the opportunity.
As the back end of the season has transpired, Davis (like an NBA coach) has deployed his bench strategically in response to the attributes of specific opponents and the circumstances of specific games. Styles, Puff Johnson, and Justin McKoy have all made vital contributions in the postseason, and Walton may still yet be called upon.
Fundamentally, however, this Carolina team is about the five starters: the advanced chemistry and cohesion they play with on both sides of the ball, which at its best is a captivating mix of unselfish play and individual brilliance. For the last several weeks, all five starters have been playing with confidence. None are afraid to shoot the ball, when it’s the right shot to take.
Davis appears to prefer his players erring on the side of over-aggressively offensively; Carolina doesn’t take many out-and-out bad shots, but some are questionable by Carolina’s historic standards. In the shot clock era, and with Carolina’s offensive rebounding progress, that’s on balance a smart adjustment. Equally important, the starting five has also steadily reduced its turnover rate, largely cutting out the live ball turnovers that hurt the team so badly earlier in the year.
Defense is the bigger challenge. In normal circumstances, Carolina can’t really afford to press or be over-aggressive on defense. Serious foul trouble, especially to Armando Bacot, would be just about fatal to Carolina in most games. So the challenge is to defend stoutly, contest shots, own the defensive boards, and yet not foul very much.
For the most part, Carolina has done that very well, too, in the latter part of the season, holding opponents to 36% shooting in the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, UCLA presented a very difficult challenge: the Bruins are a well-disciplined team that do not turn the ball over, have skilled mid-range scorers, and play unselfishly.
Indeed, Friday’s contest felt like a slower-paced, higher-stakes rewind of the Syracuse game: a tense, possession-by-possession affair in which every pass, shot and rebound mattered. Carolina struggled to get stops at times, but did so when it mattered most, by challenging shots without fouling, even when switches produced odd matchups, and sweeping up the boards.
Then in the end game, as against Syracuse, Caleb Love punctuated a scorching second half by taking responsibility for taking the season’s biggest shots—and making them.
If Friday will be largely remembered for Love’s legendary second half takeover, Sunday’s emphatic win over St. Peter’s should be remembered as a textbook case of preparation meeting focused execution.
Make no mistake, this was a dangerous game. Everyone who ever cared a wink about St. Peter’s basketball was in the arena yesterday, and rightly so, and they were itching for a chance to impact the game.
That never happened, because Carolina came out of the gate like a team that had passed through way too many hurdles to let this opportunity get away. The Tar Heels showed respect for both the moment and their opponent by playing stifling defense and imposing what can only be described as total backboard domination by Armando Bacot.
Carolina jumped out to leads of 9-0 and 27-9, stretched the margin to 38-19 by halftime, and pushed the lead to as many as 27 in the second half before settling for a 20-point win.
The most telling moment in this dominant performance for me was not Bacot’s 22nd rebound, one of Brady Manek’s sweet off-the-ball cuts for a layup, or even RJ Davis’s second-half steal and dish to Love for an emphatic jam.
Rather it was what happened when St. Peter’s inserted his reserve scoring specialist Doug Edert (known to the Peacock faithful as “Dougie Buckets”), after an early St. Peter’s timeout with Carolina already ahead 7-0. Hubert Davis could be seen pulling Leaky Black over for an extra word of instruction just before play resumed.
Black then proceeded not only to completely shut Edert out of the game defensively, he also drove right at the overmatched Edert on the offensive end to get a comfortable two inside. Deprived of any offensive punch from a player who had dropped 20 points on Kentucky and 10 crucial points on Purdue in those massive upsets, the Peacocks had no realistic way of getting on the kind of run that would have produced a sliver of hope or gotten the crowd into it.
In short, Carolina succeeded where Kentucky and Purdue did not, in making this look just like a game between a team ranked in the top 20 of national statistical categories and a team ranked at about No. 100.
That fact is again testimony to the coaching job Hubert Davis and his staff have produced. Having settled on his lineup and approach to the season, Davis has demonstrated again and again that he understands what makes each of his players tick, which in turn makes it a lot easier to push the right buttons when the chips are down.
The players in turn have responded to that approach over the last month by stepping up and making the plays of which they are capable, plays which were needed to continue Carolina’s season.
Here it’s worth remembering that Davis, even in the several valleys of this season, remained relentlessly upbeat about this team’s potential. That wasn’t about blowing smoke, it was about insisting on sticking to Carolina basketball’s historically high expectations. The work of the season was getting the players both to believe that they, too, could meet those standards, and putting in the work and attention to detail in to make high-level success a reality.
In that vein, much will be written and said in the week ahead about the nearly mythic rematch upcoming against Duke in the national semifinal. One of Hubert Davis’ coaching mantras has been to encourage players to enjoy their success, as motivation for further achievement, and in the arena yesterday postgame the primary focus properly was on cutting down nets and experiencing the full emotion of the moment and the achievement.
Looking forward, Davis will want his team to enjoy the experience of the Final Four, while at the same time repeating the recipe he cooked up prior to that Cameron matchup: keeping his team focused on the game and what they need to do to give themselves a chance to win it, while leaving the hoopla and hype to others. This is another relatively rare game where Carolina is a clear underdog and the pressure to perform falls more heavily on its opponent.
Everyone always imagined a Carolina-Duke Final Four game would be an occasion for high stress, anxiety and pressure. It could instead be the case that the team that can both play with high-level focus and with a sense of joy and freedom that pushes fear of failure to the side will have the edge come Saturday.
No matter how New Orleans goes, nothing should ever diminish the value and significance of what has already been accomplished this year. In becoming the first first-year head coach since Bill Guthridge to reach the Final Four since 1998, Hubert Davis has produced an exceptional coaching job on par with the very best work of any of his mentors and predecessors.
And in this 25th season of Carolina basketball after Dean Smith’s retirement, it’s worth noting that the Tar Heels have now made eight Final Fours since Smith stepped away. That’s more than Duke, Kentucky or Kansas over that same time period, and matches Michigan State’s eight appearances since 1997. It’s also far more than the three Final Four appearances UCLA managed in the quarter century after John Wooden.
Carolina’s continued achievement at that level of excellence has never been guaranteed. It is instead a product of the dedication, skill, and humility of the coaches who have embraced the responsibility of making sure Carolina basketball continues as a living, breathing tradition of excellence; and of the players who have embraced that same responsibility, not just to wear the historic jersey, but to create new accomplishments that they can call their own.
This group of players has done just that in the last month, moving from the tournament bubble to bursting the bubbles of doubters everywhere.
Those players no doubt will hear an earful about Tar Heel history in New Orleans this week — as well as a gentle but firm reminder from their coach that they aren’t going to the Superdome as tourists, but to try to make new history of their own.