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Saturday January 28th

Unsung hero RJ Davis helps UNC run away from N.C. State in pivotal win

<p>UNC junior guard RJ Davis (4) goes up for a floater during a basketball game against N.C. State on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in the Dean E. Smith Center. UNC won 80-69.</p>
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UNC junior guard RJ Davis (4) goes up for a floater during a basketball game against N.C. State on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in the Dean E. Smith Center. UNC won 80-69.

Even with his Jordans laced up, RJ Davis is almost always the smallest man on a court filled with giants.

Each night, the play of the six-foot junior guard — although even that estimate might be a bit generous — often acts as the tertiary storyline to the team's performance.

So, almost naturally, in a chippy rivalry matchup that saw senior forward Armando Bacot break two of the program’s all-time rebounding records, 26 points from UNC’s unsung hero was perhaps the deciding factor in helping the Tar Heels earn their most impressive win of the season in an 80-69 victory over N.C. State. 

After the Tar Heels looked to feed Bacot in the post early, the offense became stagnant and the Wolfpack embarked on a 13-0 run. With the team shooting just 3-17 from the field midway through the first half and looking to buy a bucket in any way possible, Davis took matters into his own hands.

Shortly after a Bacot layup and two Davis free throws broke the team’s dry spell, the guard fielded an errant pass near midcourt and heaved a desperation attempt with a second on the shot clock. Despite standing nearly 35 feet from the hoop, he galloped down the court with glee as his second triple of the night careened off the glass and into the net to spark a personal 12-0 run to help his team retake the lead. 

"The way the angle of the ball was going, I thought it was off to the right. But then I had my little Steph Curry moment, so that felt good," he joked.

On the surface, a 26-point outing would likely suggest a high-volume chucking affair, hoisting up shots in ways that can harm a team just as much as it can help. Instead, Davis played the game at his own pace, taking just eight shots in his standout performance.

Once the Tar Heels established their presence and forced the Wolfpack to try and keep Bacot and his 23-point, 18-rebound mystique away from the paint, Davis was the primary beneficiary of the team’s willingness to attack the basket at will. 

Coming into the contest, the entire UNC team understood N.C. State surrendered more free throws than any other team in the ACC. So, Davis, who has statistically been the most proficient foul shooter in the conference, drilled all 14 of his free throws to play a part in helping the team shoot 36-39 at the charity stripe en route to setting a program record for the highest free throw percentage in a game with at least 30 attempts.

"We knew they fouled a lot coming into the game, so it was all about not settling for jump shots and threes and just attacking the paint, whether that's through post or penetration. And I think we did a great job getting into the paint and, when the defense collapsed, knocking down our free throws with confidence."

Following an early four-game losing streak, the Tar Heels have won nine of their last 11 games, and Davis has arguably been the most decisive figure in the team's turnaround. While the team has a long way to go to reach the potential of a group nabbed by many as the preseason favorite to win the national title, Davis has more than done his part to keep the offense afloat until it can fully get clicking. 

Since Dec. 17, Davis has averaged 18.7 points per game and has shot 48 percent from behind the arc. Although the Tar Heels have simultaneously dealt with injuries in the frontcourt and inconsistent play from fellow junior guard Caleb Love, Davis has carried the team in large spurts, much like he did against the Wolfpack on Saturday.

"He's playing at an extremely high level," head coach Hubert Davis said. "He didn't mention it but early in the year, he was dealing with a finger injury on the shooting hand and that affected him in terms of being able to shoot the ball percentage-wise in a way we all felt he could shoot. But over the last month and a half, he's played at an All-American level."

In a rotation with plenty of mouths to feed, it is likely that RJ Davis will never earn the amount of offensive looks his play should likely enable him to receive. According to Barttorvik's stat database, he ranks second on the team with a box plus-minus of 5.7, yet is still the team's fourth-most utilized player when on the floor with a usage rate of 22.5.

Considering the circumstances, whether it be UNC's deep 10-man lineup or the worry of handing the keys of an offense to an undersized playmaker, Davis will presumably remain the team's unsung star. But as Saturday showed, regardless of his role, the rest of the Tar Heels understand the importance of unlocking the team's most consistent backcourt weapon.

"We need him to continue to be confident, we need him to continue to shoot the ball," graduate transfer forward Pete Nance said. "I tell him all the time, 'When you shoot, we're really, really good' because he's efficient and he scores and he makes it, and tonight was everything we know he is and what he can do."

@hunternelson_1 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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