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UNC basketball passed first March test in a way that bodes well in most important month

Andrew Carter, The News & Observer on

Published in Basketball

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Hubert Davis played for the New York Knicks during the mid-1990s, in a time of rugged physicality in the NBA and for the team that most personified the grittiest, most bruising period in the league’s history. That’s part of why he didn’t think much of the mini-skirmish here on Saturday early in the second half of North Carolina’s grind-it-out 79-70 victory against N.C. State.

It was heated, for a brief moment, after Elliot Cadeau and Casey Morsell found themselves entangled; Morsell committing a foul and Cadeau releasing himself from the fray with a what-was-that-about kind of look. Players from both teams rushed in. Some came nose-to-nose. There was some talk and puffed chests, officials in the middle trying to bring calm.

The scene didn’t much register with Davis, who undoubtedly had been a part of countless similar moments during his time with those rough-and-tumble Knicks teams. This, on Saturday at the Smith Center, “was nothing” in comparison, he said.

“I played in the 90s,” Davis said, emphasizing the decade, “where a fight could break out and you could still play.”

This, meanwhile, wasn’t anything close to a fight. It wasn’t even a flagrant foul. But it was a small moment that underscored the Tar Heels’ willingness to scrap, which has quietly become a part of this particular UNC team’s identity. Davis hopes there’s a little more than a month remaining in his third season as UNC’s head coach and if there is — if the Tar Heels manage a deep run through the NCAA Tournament — part of it will be attributable to how they won here on Saturday.

They did not have their “A” game, for long stretches. They didn’t make a shot from the field during the final four minutes of the first half, when they surrendered a 14-1 run that left the Wolfpack in control (however fleeting that control might’ve been). They found themselves trailing by 10 points early in the second half, with the Smith Center quiet, with the realization that, well, this wasn’t going to be easy, after all, despite UNC’s ritual dominance in this rivalry.

 

And then, with a suddenness, the Tar Heels snapped out of it. They played with a sense of fight.

“I felt like when things got a little chippy, it ignited us a little bit,” Davis said.

With a strong finish over the final week of the regular season, and during the ACC tournament, UNC could well earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels haven’t been a top seed since 2019, though if they are this year it’ll be the fourth time in the past 10 years that it has happened. UNC’s three most recent teams to be a top seed all played with some finesse.

The 2019 team was a fast-paced machine that fizzled late. The 2017 team won the national championship on the strength of Justin Jackson’s mid-range game, and Joel Berry’s direction at point guard. The 2016 team nearly won the national championship, after shedding a label that it was soft. The 2009 team, also a No. 1 seed, ran through the tournament like few teams ever have.

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