By Adam Lucas
As soon as he walked down the uni hallway and turned the corner into the Smith Center tunnel, Hubert Davis felt it.
Saturday was NC State vs. Carolina. A college basketball national writer made a list of ten games to watch Saturday, and Tar Heels-Wolfpack wasn’t on it, not even as an “under the radar” game.
But that’s why it makes so much sense that Hubert Davis is the head coach at the University of North Carolina — he doesn’t need lists. All he had to do was look through the tunnel and see the 21,750 full seats, the largest crowd to watch a college basketball game in the United States that day.
“There’s nothing — nothing — better than an ACC game in the afternoon,” Davis told Jones Angell on the Tar Heel Sports Network after the game. “Walking out of that tunnel early in the game felt like a big game. And that was it.”
It was great for so many reasons. The 80-69 win was a conference win that put Carolina in the group of five teams that finished third, 6-3 (one of those groups is Syracuse, where the Heels will travel Tuesday). The win was also historic as Armando Bacot transitioned into sole possession of two all-time UNC records — double-double (passing Billy Cunningham) and rebounds (passing Tyler Hansbrough). Not only did it happen in front of a sold-out crowd, but also in front of the 1993 national title team, who reunited to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
It was also a win that required some tenacity, which State says hasn’t always been the case in some of the series’ final games. This felt more like an old school Carolina State game with Bacot paint pounding against DJ Burns and lots of trash talking and both teams battling for the conference top tier. Two blatant fouls were dealt, one dubious blatant two on Leaky Black (no, he doesn’t have to sit out at any time the next day) and the other a blatant on Casey Morsell.
As with the very best Carolina State games, there was some pre-game commentary, this time from the state side. Quotes from Terquavion Smith and Ernest Ross quickly made their way into the UNC dressing room last week.
That added to an intense week of training that was highlighted earlier this week when Hubert Davis grew frustrated with his team’s defensive performance and embarked on a drill to demonstrate how he wanted his team to go over ball screens, not under. “I’m 52 years old!” he barked.
That was the kind of pregame intensity that paid off — Carolina kept the pack under 30 percent from the three-point line — as opposed to the kind that wasn’t very productive. Saturday was a rough day for Ross, who recently predicted the state “is going to win the natty.” Ross was dunked by Pete Nance and missed a dunk of his own. As you may recall, Carolina’s six NCAA championships, four of which have come since the pack last won one — in fact, the Tar Heels have had more national titles than NC State Sweet 16 appearances since 1990 — Nattys won’t be in January won.
But conference games are, and the Tar Heels had an excellent schedule for Saturday’s edition. NC State’s defensive profile was a team that fouled above average all season. According to Ken Pomeroy, they rank last in the league in terms of FTA/FGA ratio in ACC games, which means they send opponents to the free-throw line more consistently than any defense in the conference.
So Hubert Davis’ game plan was simple: let State defend, use their tendencies, and convert at the free-throw line. Armando Bacot and RJ Davis each drew eight fouls, meaning they collectively drew as many fouls as the entire NC State team. Bacot and Davis also scored 21-on-21 from the free throw line and there’s your game.
“We settled for too many three-pointers early in the game,” Davis said. “Once we put our heads down and attacked through penetration and hit Mando deep at the post, we were in a great position to get to the line. And we’re a pretty good free-throw team.”
However, it will be remembered as more than just a free throw competition. You can live your entire life as a Carolina fan and never see a tar heel personally set a major career record. On Saturday, fans in attendance saw one person do it twice. Bacot’s career rebound mark eclipsed Tyler Hansbrough, a player Bacot fought in summer pickup games. “Tyler Hansbrough is one of the greatest UNC players and collegiate players of all time,” said Bacot. “To say I have a record of him is incredible.”
Hansbrough was there, of course, because this is Carolina and that’s how it happens. It wasn’t long ago that Phil Ford was on hand to congratulate Hansbrough on beating his UNC mark. This time it was Hansbrough who confirmed Bacot in the rebounding category. Before you know it, your favorite players are the ex-players and the stars are the legends.
But they are always there. Because Carolina basketball just isn’t like anywhere else.
At Carolina, a current player sets a record and the all-time best he has surpassed in the record books shows up to personally congratulate him, while a national championship team from 30 years ago waits in the locker room in front of the entire team speak.
“The ability to connect all players, current and former, is what makes this place special,” Davis said. “They shared their experiences and talked about how their togetherness and closeness won them a national championship in 1993. That’s what we have to do with this team: we want our togetherness and closeness to allow us to be the best team we can be.”
Also in attendance on Saturday was a certain Hall of Fame coach and season ticket holder (to virtually every sport on campus) who, as head coach of Tar Heel, posted a 33-5 record against State. Roy Williams is just a fan now. And so he spoke for most of the other 21,750 as he walked out of the Smith Center on Saturday night, grabbed a boxing score and absorbed the eleven-point win.
“You think,” he said with a wink and a grin, “I might have liked that a bit?”