In the excitement of the prospect of another talented lead guard who will stay multiple years due to his height, we as UNC fans have largely been ignoring that after quite a good start to the season, the past month and change have been bad for R.J. Davis. In the Heels’ last 11 games, he’d been shooting 31% from the field, 29% from three, averaging more turnovers than assists during a time when seemingly every other perimeter Heel was reversing that trend, and routinely getting taken advantage of on defense. He provided value just in the fact that he’s a ballhandler on a team with very few of them, but was struggling to re-establish himself as anything but a tough shot-taker who wasn’t seeing them go in much. The game against Notre Dame was a bit of a palate cleanser for the whole team, though, including Davis, who shot 5/9 for 14 points, yanked three steals, and got UNC over the 100-point mark for the first time in 25 months with the first dunk of his college career. The next day, against a tougher opponent in Virginia Tech, Davis was the star for his team, taking over at multiple key junctures in a back-and-forth affair and ultimately helping the Heels outlast the Hokies, 81-73.
Davis led all scorers with 19 points on 6/10 shooting (4/7 from three), but that’s only part of the reason he’s my Player of the Game. Another big part of it is the timing of a lot of his scoring. To wit: UNC went down 2-7 in the first five minutes, at which point Roy Williams yanked four of his starters and asked his bench to get something going. Led by Davis, the Heels clawed back over the next 5 minutes, with Davis hitting a three and then feeding Day’Ron Sharpe for a layup to cut the Virginia Tech lead to just 3 before he left the game, at which point Caleb Love’s only baskets of the game gave the Heels a lead that they didn’t hold on to for the rest of the game, but did feel like a transition point from the Heels being dominated to the team fighting back. Later, with the score tied at 47 and the Heels struggling to find offense, Davis hit a late-clock midrange jumper for a brief lead, then, with the Heels up 1 a couple of possessions later, hit a catch-and-shoot three, then pulled off an incredible steal and finished a layup through contact, converting the and-1 and giving UNC a 7-point lead that was never threatened within one possession again. As if that weren’t enough, Davis iced the game with a three to put the lead at 78-67 with just over a minute left, slamming the door on any hope for a Hokie comeback. In other words, 14 of Davis’ 19 points were at key moments that ensured the Heels could win this game.
Davis also took huge strides as a point guard in this game, after a long stretch of games where he wasn’t looking for much besides driving lanes and shooting spots for himself. He only had the one assist to Sharpe against two turnovers, but he moved the ball and moved without the ball effectively and decisively, giving the team a lot more cohesion with him at the lead than we’d seen recently. Most of his offensive contributions came within the flow of the offense rather than as a result of shot-hunting, and with his scoring not coming at the expense of the rest of the lineups’ ability to play basketball, the Heels looked like an actually quite good team. He still has a ways to go as a distributor and off-ball player, but if he can keep doing this as the team’s secondary ballhandler, this team’s ceiling rises exponentially.
An extremely honorable mention goes to Armando Bacot, whose 17 points and 13 rebounds were absolutely massive in a game where Virginia Tech sold out to stop UNC’s bigs from getting what they wanted. Bacot was neutralized in the first half, but managed to simultaneously slow himself down and play bigger and stronger in the second half, getting to offensive rebounds before the Hokies could find them and getting his team second opportunities as well as finishing off a few by himself. His 6 offensive rebounds led the team. Leaky Black had himself a tidy game as well, knocking down a couple of threes (!) and a midrange jumper en route to 8 points and adding a team-high 3 assists.
UNC will return to action tonight against a well-rested Florida State team.