By R.L. Bynum
NEW YORK — Hubert Davis wasn’t focused on the hype before Carolina’s big upset at Duke on Saturday and that didn’t change in the aftermath of the game.
It was all about Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the days before the game and much of the talk afterward was about the historic aspects of the Tar Heels ruining his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But Davis focused on the big picture throughout, and where his No. 3-seed and No. 18-ranked Tar Heels are heading into the ACC Tournament. He loves how RJ Davis has become a huge floor leader and Caleb Love has become a dependable finisher, among many other improved areas.
Carolina (23–8) faces either No. 6 Virginia (19–12) at 9:30 Thursday (ESPN) at Barclays Center in the final quarterfinal game. The Cavaliers, who lost at UNC 74–58 on Jan. 8, held off No. 11-seed Louisville on Wednesday 51–50.
“We’re very thankful that we played well enough to beat a great Duke team,” Coach Davis said. “But our focus and our mind is on our preparation and our practice and seeing how good we can be in the ACC tournament this week.”
Yes, Davis took great joy in how Carolina earned the 94–81 victory. The upward trajectory of the season, with five consecutive victories, gives him even more joy.
“I think the excitement is how we’re playing over the last month and a half,” said Davis, whose team has won 11 of its last 13 games. “The health of this team is at an all-time best, I feel, and our togetherness is at an all-time best. So, the confidence and the joy that I think our players are feeling is because of that. It’s not directed on this past Saturday. I think it’s based upon the last month and a half and just how well we’re playing.”
Coach Davis said a big reason for UNC’s recent success is its defensive, rebounding and ability to limit turnovers. UNC only turned the ball over five times in Durham, and only once in the second half.
“We’ve identified those three things that allow us to have success out there on the floor. And those are things that we talk about daily,” he said. “I think we’re a tough team, a resilient team. And I think that’s been proven by the way that this team has continued to persevere and bounce back through ups and downs in the season to put themselves in a position where they are right now.”
Davis says that defense fueling Carolina’s transition game has been important in recent games, particularly in the second half of the Tar Heels’ win at Duke.
“I’ve always believed if we can get out in transition and we can get shots, more times than not, we’re going to make them,” Davis said, noting Brady Manek’s efficiency, RJ Davis’ decision-making, Armando Bacot’s play around the basket, Leaky Black’s ability to make timely baskets and distribute the ball as being big boosts, along with Love’s clutch play late.
“RJ was brilliant at distributing the basketball and understanding when to pass and shoot,” Coach Davis said. “Caleb started heating up in the second half, in large part because I think he was taking better shots. From that standpoint, I thought in the second half we were really good offensively. We were getting the shots that we wanted.”
RJ Davis leads the Tar Heels in 3-point shooting percentage (40.6%), is second in assists (105) and free-throw percentage (79.8%), third in 3-pointers (56) and fourth in scoring (13.6 points per game.) Carolina is 13–3 when he scores at least 15 points.
RJ Davis, who has 40 assists against 16 turnovers in the last 11 games, made a huge difference against Duke, particularly in the second half, by creating chances for teammates and not being intimidated when driving the lane against taller players.
Coach Davis said that he worked a lot in the offseason on finishing at the basket and his ability to score with a floater using either hand gives defenders a lot to think about.
“He’s very crafty at finishing around the basket,” Coach Davis said of RJ Davis. “His freshman year, he would take it to the basket and he just wasn’t getting the right angles and, at times, he was getting it blocked or the shot blocker was altering his shot. He’s using his body and using angles to get the ball on the board.”
Love may not shoot well in the first halves of games but he’s been lethal late in games to give the Tar Heels the ability to play with any team in the country. What impresses Coach Davis most is Love’s confidence level to take the big shot and make the big play.
“The thing that I really love is not just about his shot, but — just in late-game situations — his ability to create for others and being able to pass the ball and also step up defensively and get stops,” Davis said. “Those are the things that I’m really proud of with Caleb in those late-game situations: His ability to step up on both ends of the floor many different ways.”
Love leads Carolina in assists (116), free-throw percentage (87.5%) and steals (36), is second in scoring (15.7 points per game) and 3-pointers (70) and third in 3-point shooting percentage.