DURHAM, N.C. — Saturday’s UNC-Duke rivalry game had the makings of a classic, with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski prepared to grace his home floor for the final time.
The night was complete with a who’s who of stars like Dirk Nowitzki, Ken Jeong, Grant Hill and many others, pre-game and post-game-ceremonies scheduled for Krzyzewski and a Duke team that featured a starting five of NBA prospects.
But on Thursday, UNC head coach Hubert Davis made it clear that he took no interest in any of the extracurriculars, nor did he want the Tar Heels to.
“It’s North Carolina-Duke,” Davis said. “Great, let’s play.”
And that they did.
North Carolina left Durham with an improbable 94-81 win. Never mind the fact that the team was an 11.5-point underdog. Never mind the team’s status as an NCAA Tournament hopeful on the bubble. Never mind that they came into the game unranked up against a No. 4 team.
Saturday was supposed to be Krzyzewski’s night. Instead, it was Davis’.
A man who had never led a squad into Cameron Indoor Stadium as a head coach was facing a man who was doing so for the 647th time, with wins in 572.
But that failed to faze North Carolina and its rookie head coach.
On Saturday, the team showed an edge that it lacked in the February outing at home, where it was throttled 87-67.
North Carolina never led in Chapel Hill. On Saturday, it got the first bucket on the opening play with a dunk from junior forward Armando Bacot.
“When we came out and threw that first punch, I feel like we kind of stunned them," Bacot said.
If a Duke player made a big play, players like sophomore guard Caleb Love or graduate forward Brady Manek were there to answer with a 3-pointer or inside shot. If the Blue Devils snagged a quick lead, it took little time for the Tar Heels to take one of their own.
While it's easy to point to the performance of Bacot — who finished with a team-high 23 points — or sophomore guard R.J. Davis – who got inside for layups and assists all night – the main reason for UNC’s upset victory was its preparation.
And that starts with Hubert Davis.
The first-year head coach had the team watch an ESPN documentary centered on the Celtics-Lakers NBA rivalry in the 1980s. He showed them how the Lakers overcame a blowout loss in Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals to eventually win both Game 2 and the world championship.
Davis even used the theme of a Bible verse, Proverbs 4:25, to give his team motivation to overcome the hype of a widely-anticipated game.
“Keep your eyes straight ahead,” Davis told them. “Ignore all sideshow distractions.”
This narrow-minded focus guided North Carolina throughout the night. Four Tar Heels scored at least 20 points — for the first time in program history at that — the team out-rebounded the Blue Devils by three and they came away with a much needed Quad-1 win.
At times this season, the team did not quite hold the same passion that Davis held. In fairness, though, that is a high standard to reach.
“I’m always locked in,” Davis said with a smile. “That’s the problem with them, that I’m locked in all the time. I always tell them, ‘I’m there.’”
The fiery nature that Davis displayed all season rubbed off against a top-10 team in the country, and North Carolina shocked the college basketball world by spoiling the Blue Devils’ big night.
“It was all about mental toughness, and then relying on each other to make big plays,” RJ Davis said.
After Bacot slammed home an emphatic dunk to extend the team’s lead to ten with 52 seconds left, the game was all but over.
The players showed excitement for each other while senior forward Leaky Black took his final two shots at the free throw line with just seconds left in the game. Once the buzzer sounded, the players stormed the court in celebration of what they accomplished.
RJ Davis, in particular, said he was happy for his first-year head coach and commended the way he got them to compete.
“We know the work we put in,” Davis said. “HD coached a phenomenal game and we played a great game.”
Like he’s done all season, Hubert Davis gave his team three keys for success going into Saturday’s game.
“We had to plant our feet, we had to stand our ground and we had to fight,” he said.
Whether it’s “energy, effort and toughness,” “preparation, process and practice” or planting, standing and fighting, Davis is a man of many mantras.
Perhaps on Saturday, he picked the right one.
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