North Carolina’s R.J. Davis shows Pitt why he’s one of America’s best players



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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The question has just been posed to R.J. Davis, standing (perhaps appropriately) smack dab in the center of North Carolina’s locker room. Did his teammates set him up for this? Eh. Maybe unintentionally. But you can’t say things like this, such surefire statements as the one Elliot Cadeau made minutes earlier, and expect that praise not to resurface.

“He’s the best player in the country,” Cadeau said of Davis. “He is … He’s just better than everybody else.”

The plaudits slink down the far side of the locker room from there. “Yeah. I mean, he’s a bad boy,” Harrison Ingram adds, a grin breaking out on his face. “He gets open whenever he wants. At will. And when he shoots a shot, everyone thinks it’s going in.”

And now, the question has made its way to its subject.

Your teammates said you’re the best player in the country. What do you think of that?

Seth Trimble, bent over at his locker behind Davis, only heard a snippet — but enough. “He is!” Trimble hollered. “Ain’t no question.”

Davis chuckles. It has to be uncomfortable, even being as good as Davis is, to actually articulate that fact. But then you consider what he did Friday night, in North Carolina’s 72-65 ACC tournament semifinal win over Pitt — a victory that sends the Tar Heels to the conference title game for the first time since 2018 — and it’s hard to argue with his teammates’ assertion: a game-high 25 points, three rebounds, two assists … and most critically, two dagger 3-pointers in the last four minutes of a then-tied game.

Altogether, Davis had 11 of North Carolina’s last 16 points.

“The Player of the Year stepped up and made plays,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “You have to tip your hat to him.”

It is no surprise at this point that Davis is capable of such heroics. He’s already the ACC Player of the Year. He’s going to be a first-team All-American, likely unanimously. His jersey is going to hang in the Smith Center Rafters. “It’s not just tonight,” Hubert Davis said. “(He’s) shown up the entire season.”

But even amidst all those accolades, Davis has seemingly been unable to crack the 7-foot-4 ceiling on this year’s National Player of the Year conversation. It has been ordained, basically since the preseason, that it will be Purdue’s Zach Edey. And Edey is more than deserving; he leads the nation in scoring, player efficiency rating, and win shares per 40 minutes.

It is time, though — especially given Davis’ nightly heroics, and the fact that his Tar Heels are also going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — that Davis’ name at least be mentioned alongside Edey’s in those talks.

Edey is a physical beast, the outlier of all outliers, with rapidly improving skills amidst consistent dominance.

But … isn’t Davis, too? Just in the opposite sense. What he’s doing as a (perhaps generously listed) 6-foot guard is equally as remarkable; as Ingram said, “can’t nobody stop him.”

Pitt tried its hardest, throwing 6-foot-5 freshman guard Bub Carrington on Davis most of the first half. And Davis struggled a little. He had all of six points at the half, and UNC trailed by two. But not just under five minutes into the second half, Davis’ driving and-1 layup made him UNC’s first double-digit scorer. It also, importantly, meant the Tar Heels retook the lead, erasing Pitt’s 13-0 run midway through the first half. From there, he was off.

The Panthers — vying for a postseason berth of their own — wouldn’t go away easily, though. That seven-point lead Davis helped build, with about 10 minutes to play? Pitt matched it, storming all the way back to 62 all with 4:23 to play.

And then Davis got free at the top of the key, off a screen from Armando Bacot. “He knew what was at stake,” his mother, Venessa, told The Athletic from her seat behind UNC’s bench. He uncorked a trey.

Bang.

He stared directly over at the bench after he hit it, single-handedly stymying all of Pitt’s momentum. Not staring at anyone in particular. Rather, everyone. The coach who first believed in him as a high schooler, who recommended him to Roy Williams. His parents. His teammates. “I kind of just blacked out in that moment,” R.J. Davis said. “Just a momentum swing. An energy shift … I felt like I looked cool.” On the sideline, Hubert Davis saw Davis’ mean mug.

“I was like, yeah, I like that, that’s nice,” the head coach said. “Do it again.”

And 96 seconds later — this time, launching from Steph Curry range — Davis did.

Blouses.

“All year RJ has been our closer,” Bacot said. “In moments like that, it’s a huge luxury to know you can put the ball in our guard’s hands, and he’ll either make the shot or make the right play.”

As soon as the final buzzer sounded, Rob Davis — wearing a shirt bearing his son’s resemblance — shot both fists straight up in the air, and screamed: “My guy!” It was loud enough for all of Capital One Arena to hear, a father’s pride cutting through thunderous applause. Then he raised two fingers to his mouth, and let whistled as his son made a beeline for Bacot, North Carolina’s two seasoned veterans celebrating the moment.

They’re 40 minutes away from being ACC regular-season and tournament champions.

The last UNC team to do that? Back in 2016 … a team that played for the national title.

And none of it would be possible with the diminutive Davis. He’s the first Tar Heel with 10 25-point games since Tyler Hansbrough in 2008-09 — when the program’s last National Player of the Year led his team to an NCAA title as a senior. Those two 3s gave him 102 on the season, three away from North Carolina’s single-season record.

So. About that question.

What do you make of it, R.J.?

“I mean, I just love my teammates. These are all my brothers, and for them to praise me like that, it just shows how much we care for and support each other. So …”

Interruption. Here comes Jae’Lyn Withers in a shower cap, seemingly displeased with Davis’ answer. “Nah, nah, nah, say it with your chest,” Withers said, slapping his own. “You’re him.”

Davis laughed. So did the assembled reporters. Then he finished his thought:

“I mean, I’m not going to say it,” Davis said, grinning. “I’m going to let them speak for me.”

They said plenty.

(Photo of RJ Davis: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)





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