The North Carolina men’s basketball team took a step forward on Sunday in its 80-64 win over James Madison – and it might all be thanks to an 8.5x11 piece of paper.
After practice on Thursday and, ultimately, in the aftermath of three uninspiring wins over lesser opponents, head coach Hubert Davis asked his team to collectively write down what they wanted their identity to be. On Saturday, the players came to practice with a thought-out list, typed up on a piece of paper and signed by all 18 members of the team.
“It’s an agreement, but it’s also a promise that through sunny days and cloudy days, that we’re going to stick together,” Davis said. “That’s what we talked about before the game — let’s just stick together — I thought they did that today.”
This new identity was on display as for the first time all season, as the Tar Heels played a complete game of basketball and led for all 40 minutes against the Dukes. The offense, which had struggled for the first two weeks of the year, seemed to come to life, as the team had its second-highest scoring output of the year and matched its season-high in assists with 14.
Junior guard RJ Davis led UNC in both categories with 21 points and five assists — his highest totals since helping the Tar Heels upset top-seeded Baylor in the NCAA Tournament in March.
“I feel like I have a good IQ of when to pass and when to score,” RJ Davis said. “My teammates are a tremendous help of me being able to do that in terms of finding me and taking a good shot, and when I don’t have a good shot, I can give it up to them.”
On both sides of the floor, the Tar Heels dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Dukes 50 to 34. Senior big man Armando Bacot and graduate wing Leaky Black notched career-highs in rebounds with 23 and 12, respectively.
Then, to finish it off, the defense played as a unit, limiting a James Madison team who previously averaged 105.2 points per game to just 64. Rather than allowing the Dukes to operate their patented perimeter-oriented offense, the Tar Heels forced them to take uncomfortable shots inside the paint, which led to the team shooting a season-low 34.8 percent from the field.
“We weren’t doing a really good job of playing good, team defense,” Bacot said. “Me and a lot of us were letting our individual play affect us as a team, and I think today we did a great job of helping the helper and then helping that helper. When we’re playing defense like that, we’re hard to beat.”
Having devised what they want their identity to be four games into the season, the Tar Heels need to hold onto that mindset for the rest of the year, especially with a trip to the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland ahead of them.
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