By R.L. Bynum
PHILADELPHIA — Moments after Hubert Davis greeted the last Saint Peter’s player in the handshake line, all that had transpired since he took over as Carolina’s head coach last spring brought a flood of emotions.
He tearfully broke down, overwhelmed that he had navigated the program through a historic transition from a Hall of Fame coach and that his first team had earned the program’s NCAA-record 21st Final Four berth.
“I’ve said a number of times; it’s been so busy the last 11 and a half months,” Davis said after the Tar Heels’ decisive 60–49 win Sunday over Saint Peter’s in the East Regional final. “I haven’t really had time to think. And it was the first time that I can remember in the last 11 and a half months that I could take a deep breath, and it just came out.”
Plenty was going through his head at that moment after becoming only the second man in college basketball history to play for a school in the Final Four and then coach the same program to the Final Four (Kansas’ Dick Harp, later a UNC assistant coach, was the first). To do it at a program so rich in tradition that he loves so much brought such satisfaction.
“It’s not just this year. It’s everything,” Davis said. “What this job has meant to me, how it’s impacted my wife and my kids, the players, their parents, recruiting. It’s just been a lot. And when I finally could take a deep breath and it looked like we were going to win, I just couldn’t hold it in.”
The No. 8-seed Tar Heels (28–9) face No. 2-seed and ninth-ranked Duke (32–6) at around 8:50 in Saturday night’s second national semifinal at the Superdome in New Orleans after the road teams won both regular-season meetings.
Unlike Bill Guthridge, the last man to guide his first team as head coach to the Final Four, Davis took over after two challenging seasons. Guthridge inherited a star-studded 1997–98 team that had gone to the Final Four in Coach Dean Smith’s final season with the core of the team returning.
Davis quickly lost one center to the NBA in Day’Ron Sharpe and another to transfer in Walker Kessler for a team that lost to Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Coach Roy Williams’ final season.
With that, the pandemic and the transfer portal, Davis’ path to the Final Four was significantly more difficult than it was for Guthridge, who had future NBA players Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood.
After facing plenty of criticism, including from segments of the UNC fanbase, for the one-sided losses in an up-and-down season, he met the ultimate goal of every coach — to have the team playing its best basketball in March.
Davis remembered how odd it was to be sitting on the front of the team bus for the first time as the amazing journey of his first season leading the program accelerated.
“That was different,” he said with a laugh. “I remember the first practice and getting at midcourt, and putting together a practice plan. I remember coming out of the tunnel for the first time as head coach. I remember going on the road. I remember everything. It’s been an unbelievable year filled with so many memories and stories and testimonies, that I don’t have time enough to think about them. But we have seven, eight more days, and then I’ll sit by the pool and chill out and think about them.”
His players have talked all season about how fiery and emotional Davis is before each game and how much that motivates them. But it also showed his passion for the program. Gradually, that passion showed in the form of better consistent effort from players in games, and that’s when the season started to turn around after the surprising Feb. 16 home loss to Pittsburgh.
It said a lot to Caleb Love when he saw that Davis was unable to contain his emotions after the game.
“It shows how much he cares about us and cares about the game,” Love said. “We knew all along how much — like his passion and we carried that with us. We feed off him and his energy and so that’s why you see us playing so hard for him. It’s his first year. So we wanted to go all out for him.”
Through all of the successes during the second half of the season, Davis has repeatedly deflected praise of him toward his players. He’s said more than once that it wasn’t about him but rather about his players.
“It was really emotional toward the end of the game when we can finally settle in and realize that these guys are going to a Final Four. It was something that I just desperately wanted for them,” Davis said. “It’s something that we had talked about at the beginning of the season. And then, in the huddle, I told them that it’s not a hope, it’s not a dream anymore, it’s a reality. For these guys to have this experience, to be able to go to the Final Four, brings so much joy to my heart.”
Davis didn’t like where the program was and the perception of Carolina basketball around the country. After a rough 14–19 finish two seasons ago, and a first-round NCAA exit last season, he was determined to regain the standard that has made the program one of the country’s best.
“I felt like over the past couple of years we lost — I don’t know if it was respect from other programs, from other teams,” Davis said. “But it’s just really important for me, for those guys — I didn’t want them to have the experiences that they had the last couple of years. And that’s not typical North Carolina. And I want them to be respected. I want this program to be respected. And I feel like this year we have moved in the right direction with that.”
Davis accomplished that with an impressive 11 wins in the last 13 regular-season games, including a stunningly easy victory on March 5 to ruin Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last Duke home game. But the run of four victories to make the Final Four, including knocking off No. 1-seed and reigning NCAA champion Baylor in its home state, cemented that the program is back.
Regardless of what happens this weekend in New Orleans, Davis has begun the new era of Carolina basketball impressively.
At Superdome, New Orleans
Saturday’s national semifinals
No. 2 Villanova (30–7) vs. No. 1 Kansas (32–6), 6:09, TBS
No. 2 Duke (32–6) vs. No. 8 North Carolina (28–9), 40 minutes after first semifinal, TBS
Semifinal winners, 9:20, TBS
Photo via @UNC_Basketball