Brink of a breakthrough? UNC basketball finds reason for encouragement even in defeat

Ethan Hyman/

North Carolina entered February on a five game winning streak and seemingly building momentum for the regular season’s final stretch. One week into the month and the Tar Heels are now reeling from back-to-back losses, with a tough road game looming Tuesday at Wake Forest.

Carolina’s five ACC losses have come by a combined 24 points, including its 63-57 loss to Duke on Saturday. It’s part of the reason why junior guard R.J. Davis left Cameron Indoor Stadium optimistic that they’re on the precipice of a breakthrough.

“I feel like we’re right there and we’re really at our potential,” UNC junior guard R.J. Davis said. “I feel like a door is about to open up for us and we’re going to rush through that door. We just have to key in and continue to fight.”

For that to happen, Carolina (15-8, 7-5 ACC) is going to have to be better in late-game situations. The Heels have a 3-5 record this season in games decided by two possessions including Saturday’s loss.

UNC coach Hubert Davis said it’s been a consistent issue for the Heels staying disciplined in the little things like boxing out and being focused on a defensive assignment. The two baskets Duke scored after the game was knotted at 57 that essentially sealed the game both came because the Heels allowed offensive rebounds.

“Execution on the offensive end, that has been up and down in late game situations,” Davis said. “And once we get better and more consistent at that I think it’ll be a happier locker room than a sad locker room.”

One of the problem’s with Carolina going scoreless in the final 3:57 of the game against the Blue Devils was that leading scorer Armando Bacot did not touch the ball until 14 seconds remained.

Bacot only scored two of his 14 points in the second half. But on the last five possessions in the game Carolina did not go to the player who has been its most consistent scorer all season.

“It wasn’t necessarily hero ball, but it was a lack of concentration, just attention to details to make the plays,” said Leaky Black, who scored nine of his 13 points in the second half.

Here’s how the final offensive possessions unfolded:

Pete Nance, who shot 1-for-10 and missed all five of his 3-point attempts, had an open 3-pointer in transition that he missed.

Caleb Love turned the ball over when he got caught on a drive leaving his feet and then tried to force a pass back outside to Nance on the perimeter.

R.J. Davis had a step on Tyrese Proctor and drove to the basket, but Proctor recovered enough to partially block his shot.

Black, who made three 3-pointers in the second half, had a wide-open attempt for his fourth, with the Heels trailing by two, but missed from the left corner.

Down by four, Nance had another clean look from the top of the key after Bacot passed it out of the post, but that too, was off.

“We lost it just went down to them and making more plays than us at the end,” Bacot said. “It’s upsetting that we lost but it’s also encouraging it’s something we can learn from and just get better at.”

The time to learn is rapidly shrinking with only eight games left in the regular season. But R.J. Davis believes it’s more than enough time to clean up their late-game execution.

“I’m not giving up on his team, and we’re definitely not giving up on each other,” Davis said. “So right now, it’s definitely like a hard pill to swallow. We got a lot of the games left, a lot of time left and we’re not beating each other. We still have hope, we could definitely turn this whole thing around.”