The Tar Heels may have lost for the first time since December last night, but the Player of the Game remains very familiar.
RJ Davis once again led North Carolina in scoring and willed them back from down eight to a one-point lead with 30 seconds remaining, which they unfortunately couldn’t sustain. Playing without Elliot Cadeau for most of the second half put RJ into create mode, and he kept the Tar Heels afloat when they were on the ropes. He nearly had a game-winner (or potential game-winning free throws), as he was bumped on the last possession tossing up a fading floater to win it, but unfortunately, the shot did not fall and the whistle never came.
The senior guard tallied 28 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in the course of 35 hard-fought minutes for North Carolina. RJ knocked down three three-pointers, continuing his streak of games with double-digit triples. He scored nine of the final sixteen for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina, who suffered their first ACC loss, needed every bit of leadership down the stretch from their National Player of the Year candidate. The 50/50 loose ball RJ came up with and then finished on the other end to take the lead with 34 seconds left was a solid glimpse of just how tough he was all night. Truthfully, RJ didn’t get nearly enough help for the full forty minutes to put the Tar Heels in position to win, but he got them there anyway.
While frustrating, seeing RJ run the point and facilitate with Cadeau sidelined was promising, knowing that situation may arise again for North Carolina down the stretch. Even though Davis would likely say he wasn’t at his best, a step back in the AP Poll and ACC standings may be a step forward for the growth and learning of this team. If RJ continues to play like this, I am confident the Tar Heels will figure out what went on around him tonight.
Once we can recover from this frustrating loss and head-scratching no-call at the finish, I argue North Carolina will be better for what happened in Atlanta. It hasn’t been a pretty last few games for Hubert Davis’s squad, regardless of the result, and by the time the calendar rolls over to March, there’s reason to believe that more growth will come out of a loss than a win. At least we still got to see a near-thirty-point performance from RJ in the midst of it. If I had a vote for NPOY, he’d be my winner.