With all the hype centered around UNC basketball's deep frontcourt, it was the smallest first-year who made the biggest impact.
With 10:50 left to play, the Tar Heels were clinging onto a 50-49 lead. That’s when the 6-foot guard RJ Davis permanently changed the momentum in North Carolina’s 81-73 victory over No. 22 Virginia Tech.
After Davis drained a 3-pointer over his defender, Virginia Tech's Hunter Cattoor turned his back as he brought the ball up the floor. Davis saw an opening.
He reached in, poked the ball free and hustled to it. As Cattoor raced back to stop the break, Davis spun around to find space, drew a foul and laid the ball high on the glass and through the net. The bench jumped in elation, giving the Tar Heels a sudden burst of energy with the game in the balance.
Such energy was missing the entire first half. The Hokies suffocated the Tar Heels defensively, and it appeared that North Carolina was reverting back to its old form — displaying its brand of basketball where the only consistency is inconsistency.
But Davis rose from the shadows of his three fellow first-years and delivered his signature performance. The one that willed UNC to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.
“You see the maturity growing inside him,” junior forward Leaky Black said. “We’re proud of him.”
Despite shooting only 35 percent coming into the game, Davis knocked down shots when the Tar Heels desperately needed a spark. The typical post dominance and reliance on offensive boards was limited by the Hokies' aggressive defensive schemes in the first half. And the Hokies were content with letting anyone else but the sharp-shooting first-year Kerwin Walton shoot.
So, Davis gave Virginia Tech what it wanted. He got his shots and scored a season-high 19 points, more than double his average. For one of the few times this season, the guard looked comfortable on the court.
UNC suddenly found itself up double-digits with just over five minutes remaining. Virginia Tech used every last ounce of juice to cut the lead to five. But Black responded with a rare triple and Davis shut the door with one of his own.
And out came the “Tar Heel” chants from a UNC-heavy crowd echoing around the Greensboro Coliseum in celebration of their team’s upset victory — secured by one of the unlikeliest of sources.
Davis arrived in Chapel Hill billed as a scorer, but has struggled to find his touch throughout the year. Much of his early season was marred by poor outside shooting and turnover problems. And whenever he took contested shots in the paint, they would often end up blocked.
While he’s shown some flashes of his potential, he remained the forgotten member of North Carolina’s young core. With Walton’s coveted ability to space the floor with his shooting, Caleb Love’s heroics against Duke and Day’Ron Sharpe’s paint dominance, it was easy for Tar Heel fans to overlook the undersized point guard.
But it never phased him. He just kept working, and on Thursday, it was his time to shine.
“RJ’s a tough kid,” head coach Roy Williams said. “He’s been a good player for us all year. He hasn’t been as consistent, but neither’s Caleb.”
Williams made the call to have his two first-year guards share minutes on the court. With Love taking the ball-handling duties, Davis was able to find the space to get open looks. The burden of doubling as a playmaker was lifted, and he was allowed to do what he excelled at: getting buckets.
“Me and Caleb complement each other really well,” Davis said. “We're both scoring guards. We both can create our own shots and get our teammates going.”
On a UNC team oozing with potential, it was Davis’ turn to showcase his. He reminded everyone that he will have a say in how far this North Carolina team can go in the NCAA Tournament. But he also proved he’ll be a large part of the Tar Heels’ future.
“I don’t really see myself as being small,” Davis said. “I just go out and play hard and play like I’m 6-foot-5.”
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