High-level coaching from Davis, from loud halftime speech to deftly guiding huge win

By R.L. Bynum

Hubert Davis gained a permanent place in the hearts of Carolina fans with the two wins last season over Duke, but he may have done one of the best coaching jobs of his short tenure Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

Davis trusted his team even after falling behind by 14 points in the first half, and they came through.

After a spirited halftime speech, Davis made a defensive change and deftly guided the Tar Heels through the end of regulation. Davis made all the right moves in the 89–84 overtime victory over No. 23 Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Unlike many other coaches, Davis doesn’t need profanity to communicate his message. He didn’t need to curse to get his team’s attention after seeing a lot he didn’t like in the first half.  

The volume of his voice said it all.

He got the attention of Armando Bacot and Caleb Love, who led the second-half rally, and the rest of the team.

“I was direct. I was straightforward. I didn’t speak in tongues or interpretation,” Davis said. “They knew exactly where I was coming from. That’s the way I always communicate. But I did it with a higher volume at halftime, and Armando and Caleb have said they like the higher volume from me. So I’m going to continue to do that.”

Bacot had already jump-started the Tar Heels by scoring 15 of their final 21 first-half points on his way to his fifth consecutive double-double with 28 points and 15 rebounds.

“Coach came in at halftime and gave us a moving speech,” Bacot said. “In the first half, they punked us early. In the second half, I thought we did a good job coming out early.”

Davis said that Ohio State outrebounded his team, was more physical, got to more loose balls, and beat the Tar Heels to just about everything.

That had to change, and he let the Tar Heels know about it.

“At halftime, we talked about [how] there needed to be a response and for things to change,” Davis said. “A level of toughness and physicality needed to be brought to play against such a great team in Ohio State. The did that in the second half, not only in the defensive end, but I think on the offensive end as well in terms of getting to their spots and getting to the shots they wanted.”

After battling back to make a game of it, it would have been all for nothing if Davis didn’t coolly navigate the last two seconds of regulation. Carolina was down two and had to go the length of the court to tie it or win it with a 3-pointer.

UNC coach Hubert Davis explains the options during a timeout with two seconds left in regulation before Leaky Black threw the inbounds pass to RJ Davis with the Tar Heels trailing by two points.

There was no panic as Davis told the Tar Heels what was next, in a sequence that led to Pete Nance hitting a short turnaround jumper at the regulation buzzer to force overtime.

“I just didn’t think we could get a clean shot going full court,” Davis said. “So, I just drew up a play that gave us three options to catch the ball near half-court. I told them, ‘once you catch it, it’s a little bit over two seconds, you have one dribble, and you’ve got to get it over half-court to call timeout. If you get it over half court, then you can advance the basketball.’ ”

That part went perfectly, and it helped that Ohio State didn’t guard Leaky Black as he threw in the inbounds pass. Black tossed it to RJ Davis, who quickly moved past half-court and called a timeout.

“The execution of that play was probably just as or more important than the one to Pete,” Coach Davis said.

As for the next step, Coach Davis said that they had several late-clock, late-game situation plays that they’ve practiced but didn’t have one for that situation with 1.2 seconds left.

That’s where assistant coach Jeff Lebo jumped into action.

Assistant Coach Jeff Lebo, in front of Caleb Love, explains during a timeout with 1.2 seconds left the play that led to Pete Nance’s buzzer-beating jumper Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

“Their execution was fantastic to get the ball across half-court to get us into a position where we can run that play, and then Coach Lebo thought that we could get the ball to Pete because of his lift, just throw it up. They weren’t going to foul him,” Davis said. “One of the things Pete loves to do is he loves that side of the block and he loves that turnaround jumper. Not that he was going to hit it, but that’s a shot he likes to take and takes all the time.”

Black, who was a game-high +27, made another excellent pass to get the ball to Nance, who just did release his shot in time. The ball swished through and the game headed to overtime.

“At the end of the day, it’s about executing,” Davis said. “You can write up all the plays that you want. It’s a make-or-miss game. Pete stepped up and made them and gave us an opportunity to go into overtime.”

The problem was that the Tar Heels never had even practiced that play, so Davis had to trust that Black and Nance would execute. The second-year head coach had that trust, considering the team had already dealt with tense late-game situations, and the Tar Heels didn’t let him down.

“There’s tremendous trust,” Davis said. “Just because we run a play that we never run in practice, we’re together in practice every day. We share time together. So, the time spent together builds that trust to let everybody be involved. And one of the things that I tell the guys all the time — and this is a great example — nobody can do it by themselves. You always need help. You’ve got to do it together.”

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The shift defensively was pressing more after an RJ Davis free throw cut the deficit to 66-55 with seven minutes left in regulation, which led to an immediate turnover. A couple of possessions later, the Tar Heels stopped guarding the inbounds passer and instead had Nance apply double teams, which led to a five-second violation a minute after the change.

It all produced four turnovers shortly after the switch.

“We did it for the first time against Virginia Tech, and at that point, we were down by 18 and cut it to three,” Davis said. “It just felt like our starters were in there so much, so it’s hard to do that for an entire game. Their ability to get deflections and steals, get turnovers, speed up the game, I thought it was huge. They’ve been fantastic with it all year.”

The four-overtime game against Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland last month didn’t produce a victory, but it gave Carolina valuable experience in tense situations.

“I do think it helped; I do,” Davis said. “I think it helped from the standpoint of making me not want to go four overtimes. I also think the experience of being in the position a number of times in that game for the outcome to be different and to let’s learn from that. Let’s grow from it.”

The Tar Heels had been there before and were determined to produce a different outcome. Davis said that his team needed to understand what to do in terms of execution on both ends of the floor.

“It would be great if we could learn those type of lessons by winning everything,” he said. That didn’t happen. I’m very proud of the way they responded to that.”

Carolina is now 8–4, has won three consecutive games after four losses in a row, and has the sort of win that can dictate the trajectory of a season heading into ACC play.

Tar Heels fans should, again, be proud of how Davis responded as a coach in a big-time game on a big-time stage in a big-time venue.

UNC statistics


DateMonth/dayTime/scoreOpponent/event
(current ranking)
LocationTV/record
October
28FridayW, 101–40Johnson C. Smith HomeExhibition
November
7MondayW, 69–56UNCWHome1–0
11FridayW, 102–86College of CharlestonHome2–0
15TuesdayW, 72–66Gardner-WebbHome3–0
20SundayW, 80–64James MadisonHome4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 89–81First round: PortlandPortland5–0
25FridayL, 70–65Semifinals:
No. 11
Iowa State
Portland5–1
27SundayL, 103–101,
4 OTs
Consolation:
No. 3 Alabama
Portland5–2
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
30WednesdayL, 77–65 No. 18 IndianaBloomington, Ind.5–3
December
4SundayL, 80–72 Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.5–4,
0–1 ACC
10SaturdayW, 75–59Georgia TechHome6–4,
1–1 ACC
13TuesdayW, 100–67The CitadelHome7–4
CBS Sports Classic
17SaturdayW, 89–84, OTOhio StateNew York8–4
Jumpman Invitational
21WednesdayW, 80–76MichiganCharlotte9–4
30 Friday L, 76–74PittsburghPittsburgh9–5,
1–2 ACC
January
4WednesdayW, 88–79Wake ForestHome10–5,
2–2 ACC
7SaturdayW, 81–64Notre DameHome11–5,
3–2 ACC
10TuesdayL, 65–58No. 8 VirginiaCharlottesville11–6,
3–3 ACC
14SaturdayW, 80–59LouisvilleLouisville, Ky.12–6,
4–3 ACC
17TuesdayW, 72–64Boston CollegeHome13–6,
5–3 ACC
21SaturdayW, 80–69No. 22 N.C. StateHome14–6,
6–3 ACC
24TuesdayW, 72–68SyracuseSyracuse, N.Y.15–6,
7–3 ACC
February
1WednesdayL, 65–64PittsburghHome15–7,
7–4 ACC
4SaturdayL, 63–57 DukeDurham15–8,
7–5 ACC
7Tuesday7 p.m.Wake ForestWinston-SalemESPN
11Saturday2 p.m.ClemsonHome ESPN2
13Monday7 p.m.No. 19 MiamiHomeESPN
19Sunday1 p.m.No. 22 N.C. StateRaleighESPN
22Wednesday9 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.ESPN or ESPN2
25Saturday6 or 8No. 8 VirginiaHomeESPN
27Monday7 p.m.Florida StateTallahassee, Fla.ESPN
March
4Saturday6:30DukeHomeESPN
ACC Tournament
7–11Tuesday-SaturdayTBATBAGreensboroTBA
If tickets for home games are available, you can purchase them here.
ACCN means the game airs on ACC Network.

Top photo via @UNC_Basketball

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