A Tar Heel Run For The Ages

Photo Courtesy: USA Today

By: Harris Jacobs

While they came up just short against Kansas in Monday’s championship game, North Carolina’s tournament run will be remembered forever. 

When Hubert Davis took over as North Carolina’s head coach last year following Roy Williams’ retirement, saying he was under pressure would be an understatement. 

A former Tar Heel standout under the late Dean Smith, Davis has seen no shortage of success as a player and as an assistant coach under Roy Williams. In his 4-year playing career at UNC, he became the program’s all-time leader in three-point field goal percentage, won two ACC Conference Championships, and made a Final Four appearance. In nine seasons as an assistant coach, the Tar Heels had made two Final Four appearances, including winning a national title in 2017. 

In spite of all the pressure, Davis made it clear at his introductory press conference that he was up for the task. As the school’s first African-American head coach, he was ready for this moment. 

“In terms of the staff, you can’t do this job unless you’re a Carolina guy,” Davis said. “It’s impossible. You can’t coach here, you can’t recruit here, you can’t work here. Unless you have been here, you’ve experienced it, you have lived in.”

Yet at the beginning of Davis’ first season, the Tar Heels didn’t seem as if they’d amount to anything special.  After early season losses to Tennessee and Purdue, it seemed as if this team was regressing from a season ago, when they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Once the calendar turned to 2022, their woes continued with back-to-back 20+ point losses to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, and an absolute beatdown at home against Duke. Yet after the Duke loss on February 5, the tide turned on the Tar Heels’ campaign, producing a 7-1 record in their last 8 games of the regular season. 

Nevertheless, once the NCAA tournament bracket was released on Selection Sunday, North Carolina found itself facing an uphill battle to advance deep. In their region were two teams from the 2021 Final Four: the UCLA Bruins and the defending champion Baylor Bears. 

After the Tar Heels throttled Marquette in the first round, winning 95-63. Their first test of the tournament was Baylor in Round 2. In that game, even though North Carolina led by as much as 25 points, Baylor still came back to force overtime. Ultimately, thanks to the clutch play of guard RJ Davis, who had 30 points, the Tar Heels fought back in overtime to win 93-86 and the Baylor Bears were sent home. 

In the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels once again rose to the occasion against a veteran UCLA squad, who returned all 5 of their starters from their 2021 Final Four run. Yet the magic from 2021 did not replicate itself for the Bruins, who could not overcome North Carolina sophomore guard Caleb Love’s 30-point outburst and UNC won 73-66.

The Elite Eight was the most unique matchup of all, against the 15th seeded Saint Peter’s Peacocks, who had become the tournament’s Cinderella story. The Peacocks had pulled off three major upsets against Kentucky, Murray State, and Purdue, but their magic ran out against the Tar Heels. North Carolina rode Armando Bacot’s eye-popping 20 points and 22 rebounds to the 69-49 victory. 

In the Final Four, the stage was set for a dream matchup between North Carolina and Duke. The basketball gods couldn’t have written a better script for the end of Duke coach Mike Kryzewski’s legendary, 42-year career. Just less than a month ago, North Carolina had ruined Coach K’s final home game by beating the Blue Devils 94-81.

Would the Blue Devils get their revenge, or would 8th seeded North Carolina’s improbable tournament run continue? 

From the opening tip, the game lived up to all of the hype. The Blue Devils held a three-point lead at halftime and the team’s biggest lead in the second half was only 5 points. With 28 seconds left and the Tar Heels up one, Caleb Love hit one of the most memorable shots in the Duke-North Carolina rivalry: a three pointer that put the Tar Heels up four. From then on, North Carolina made all of its free throws, and the clock ran out on Coach K’s illustrious career. Hubert Davis and his players had done it again, beating their archrivals 81-77. For the first time since 2017, the Tar Heels were back in the championship game. 

In the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game against the Kansas Jayhawks on Monday night, the Tar Heels put forth an incredible effort, yet it wasn’t enough as Kansas prevailed to win its first NCAA tournament title in 15 years. In an all-time classic game, Kansas mounted a 15-point comeback to win by three points, 72-69. 

While the confetti was Jayhawk red and blue on Monday night, let’s not let North Carolina’s loss cloud over the fact that the Tar Heels put on a legendary show throughout this tournament. Not only did they defeat two teams who made the Final Four a year ago, but they also prevented Coach K from going out on top. It was all led by a first-year head coach who is living out his dream of coaching at his alma mater, following in the footsteps of UNC head coaching legends Dean Smith and Roy Williams. 

Yes, the Kansas loss will sting the Tar Heel faithful over the coming months, but this isn’t the last time that North Carolina will be on the biggest stage. With Hubert Davis at the helm for years to come, the program will continue its tradition of being one of college’ basketball’s best.