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Sunday June 26th

'Stay together': With Kansas ahead, UNC must use connectedness to push for title

UNC sophomore guards Caleb Love (2) and RJ Davis (4) prepare for the final seconds of the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament against Duke in New Orleans on Saturday, April 2, 2022. UNC won 81-77.
Buy Photos UNC sophomore guards Caleb Love (2) and RJ Davis (4) prepare for the final seconds of the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament against Duke in New Orleans on Saturday, April 2, 2022. UNC won 81-77.

Hubert Davis has been preparing for this moment for a long time — like, a very long time.

On Monday, the rookie head coach and his ascending No. 8 seed Tar Heels will take on the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in New Orleans with the NCAA championship on the line. 

Those kinds of stakes against this kind of team might be a new thing for his players, but they’re all too familiar to Davis.

In the 1991 NCAA Tournament, Davis — still a hot-shooting Tar Heel guard —  was part of a No. 1 seed UNC squad that reached the Final Four in Indianapolis. The team that stood between the Tar Heels and their first national title game since 1982 was a Jayhawk squad coached by future UNC legend Roy Williams.

Although Davis scored 25 points that game, the Tar Heels still fell in the semifinal, 79-73.

“That was the toughest loss I’ve ever experienced in my entire life,” Davis said.

Not only was it a tough loss, but it was one he wouldn’t let himself live down. By his own admission, between 1991 and winning a national title as an assistant coach at UNC in 2017, Davis watched that heartbreaking game at least once a year.

Twelve NBA seasons, a media career at ESPN and his first five years of coaching at his alma mater didn’t ease the pain that came with each viewing. It took that 2017 national championship to do the trick.

“It would make me cry,” Davis said. “It’s interesting — every time that I watched it, I would think, ‘It’s going to turn out differently.’ And it just didn’t.”

Even in defeat, it takes a special team to make that deep a run in the tournament. 

Davis acknowledged the talented players that 1991 squad had — himself, King Rice and three-time NBA champ Rick Fox, to name a few — but more than anything, he believed that their greatness came from how connected they were, how they played in tune with one another, on and off the court.

He sees that same connectedness in this squad. And they’re not just playing for a chance at a national title, they’re playing for the whole darn thing.

The kind of connectivity that fosters greatness wasn’t always guaranteed from this squad. One of its breakout stars, graduate transfer Brady Manek, had never been to North Carolina prior to joining the team last offseason from Oklahoma. 

“You go to a new school, it’s going to be weird,” Manek said. “You don’t know anybody, but they all grew to know what I brought to the team at my position. Just playing pickup over the summer and getting to know everybody, they definitely bought into what I brought to the team.”

The Tar Heels must be thankful they bought into Manek’s game, too — he’s been one of the main reasons for UNC’s offensive potency. His size and range help open up the floor and create space for players like sophomore guards Caleb Love or RJ Davis to get to the rim or create a shot.

That spacing and smoothness wasn’t always there, though. Early in the season, moments of “hero ball” and poor shot selection led to some not-so-great performances from the Tar Heels.

Even Manek acknowledged that there were shots he probably shouldn’t have taken.

But none of that matters now. The system has worked just as intended throughout the end of the regular season and the NCAA Tournament, right when it really needed to. Now, after the weird losses, close wins and impressive displays that have dotted the season, the one thing this team has to show for it, more than anything, is connectedness.

“With the national championship on the line, I feel like we need to be our most connected,” Love said. “We need to stay together in every kind of way, because you know it’s going to be a game of runs. They’re going to go on their runs, and we’re going to go on our runs, but we always have to stay together.”

Hubert Davis knows how unity fosters growth. He experienced it in 1991, and he’s worked tirelessly to create it in 2022.

His players had to visit his office once a week during the season and three times a week in the offseason. In his mind, you can only truly coach a squad you know.

And now, this team that he truly knows — full of players that truly know each other — will be playing to win it all.

“That’s what makes times like this, playing for a national championship, so impressive, so much fun,” Davis said.

@pjdaman12

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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