In the game of basketball, toughness can be seen in a variety of ways. Sometimes toughness is diving after loose balls in order to maintain possession. Sometimes toughness is being willing to hit a three-pointer with just seconds left in the game. And sometimes, toughness is literally taking an elbow in the face with 10.7 seconds left in the game so that your team can get to the free throw line and ice the game.
I’m sure everyone reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about, but if not, let me catch you up to speed: the Heels were up 69-68 in their game against Syracuse Tuesday night, and Judah Mintz nailed RJ Davis in the face on his way to the basket. Davis was trying to take a charge, and got right in Mintz’s face while he is swinging the ball over to the other side of his body. Davis was cut open, UNC’s medical staff had to help escort him off of the court while he covered his bloody face, and Caleb Love made one of two free throws before Mintz committed yet another foul, allowing Love to put the game away.
After the game, Hubert Davis discussed what happened to RJ in the final seconds:
“RJ is fine, but he got hit a number of times,” Hubert Davis said. “He got hit in the nose. The last one, the charge that he took, he got hit in the eye. So he’s pretty banged up. But in terms of being alert and aware, he’s fine. He is tough. His willingness to sacrifice his body out there on the floor was a difference-maker for us in being able to have a chance to win the game.”
Some people may ask why a basketball player taking shots to the face is significant, but I can’t stress this enough: as Davis pointed out, it was the way he was willing to sacrifice his body in order to give the Heels their best chance to win the game. I am not able to say for sure that Davis knew he was going to get hit in the face, but I can say with almost 100% certainty that he didn’t care what the outcome would be as long as they won. That has truly been the theme for this Carolina team, and it’s shown up in a number of ways.
A really easy example of what we’ve seen prior to the Syracuse game is Armando Bacot constantly fighting through his injuries. On our latest episode of the What in Tar Nation podcast, we discussed how he broke two school records against NC State, and he almost certainly did it with some type of ailment. He has injured his ankles a couple of times this season, and that specific injury rarely goes away completely when you continue to put it through rigorous activities. Regardless, Bacot continues to put up one double-double after another, and he has no signs of slowing down.
Or take Jalen Washington, for instance: I honestly had no idea how many minutes he could truly play this season after coming back from the ACL tear he suffered in high school. He hadn’t played basketball in over a year, and yet he played 27 minutes against Virginia, and 19 minutes against Louisville. His conditioning was almost certainly shot when he arrived on campus, and lately he has been giving Hubert Davis critical minutes when the Heels have needed him the most.
Once again, I know these are all things that happen with players across the country, but think about where UNC was roughly two months ago: they started the season with a 5-4 record after being declared the preseason #1 team in the country, which is a really tough hole to dig out of mentally and physically. This team has had to find a way to dig deep, and now they have won 10 of their last 12 games. I don’t know how the rest of this season turns out, but one thing is for certain: I wouldn’t make the mistake of saying that this team isn’t one of the toughest teams in the country right now. Talking down to a guy that is willing to voluntarily take a blow to the face is never a good idea.