As time runs out on UNC, coach Hubert Davis keeps faith

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis reacts to a foul against his team in the second half against N.C. State on Sunday, February 19, 2023 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

North Carolina coach Hubert Davis reacts to a foul against his team in the second half against N.C. State on Sunday, February 19, 2023 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

Early last April was not all that long ago. Not even 11 months. Three-hundred and twenty-three days. That’s how long it has been, as of Sunday, since the highest of highs in Hubert Davis’ first season as North Carolina’s head coach and the night the Tar Heels ended Mike Krzyzewski’s career in New Orleans, in an NCAA tournament national semifinal, and advanced to the final Monday night of the season.

Consider the ride Davis and his players have been on since — a relentless roller coaster that, like any good amusement park attraction, has been enough to elicit a fair amount of nausea. Except this particular ride, for UNC, appears never ending, a months-long experiment testing the limits of its success-spoiled supporters, and each drop feels more jolting and deeper than the last.

The Tar Heels have lived many lives and adopted many identities throughout the past 10 and a half months. They were the scrappy underdog — well, as much as any UNC basketball team could ever be — during the memorable run at the end of last season. They were the gritty and sympathetic loser of a 15-point lead in the national championship game; the hyped-up, overwhelming preseason favorite back in the fall; the just wait-until-they-turn-it-on underachiever throughout much of the first two months of this season.

Now, after Sunday, after a frustrating 77-69 defeat at N.C. State, the Tar Heels’ identity feels more cemented. They’re an NCAA tournament bubble team. Sometimes they’re good. Oftentimes they’re not. Sometimes the variance shows up in the same game, or even on alternating possessions, as it did Sunday while UNC squandered a six-point second-half lead and mustered neither the toughness nor the execution to stave off the inevitable.

Not even a year ago Davis stood atop, or quite near the top, of his sport. He’d led his team to victory in Cameron Indoor Stadium in Kryzewski’s final game there. Davis then led his team on a fateful four-week run that made Roy Williams, who handpicked Davis to be his successor, look like one of the smartest people in North Carolina. Ten and a half months later, and this team now has Davis, a man of deep faith, quoting the Bible, praying for some kind of divine intervention.

“It says in I think Hebrews 11:1,” Davis said Sunday — and he was correct on the verse — that “faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you don’t see. That’s what I have in this team. I have a faith that I’m being sure of what I hope for, and (I’m) certain of what I don’t see.”

It’s befitting of Davis’ belief that he chose a verse from the New Testament. If ever a team had earned some Old Testament tough-love, it was this one. Either way, Davis’ scripture reciting meant to reinforce his belief that it’s only a matter of time for these Tar Heels, who are so similar in roster make-up to last year’s version that their struggles are especially confounding. He meant it to suggest that what he preaches and emphasizes “and the things that we’re working on, it is going to result in something positive in terms of wins,” Davis said.

Except now it’s approaching late February, only four games remaining in the regular season, and it hasn’t yet happened. There is a precedent, at least, that Davis established a year ago. His first UNC team offered baffling performances, too, before reinventing itself in March. The transformation began almost exactly a year ago, after a defeat with almost exactly the same score as the one the Tar Heels endured Sunday. After that 76-67 loss against Pittsburgh last Feb. 16, UNC won six consecutive games. It won 11 of its final 13, setting up all the hope that surrounded this season.

If the 2023 version of the Tar Heels have a similar turnaround somewhere within themselves, there’s little that has suggested the seeds of its existence. Locker rooms are usually quiet, somber places after defeats but UNC’s on Sunday afternoon delivered the feeling of a funeral home, minus the fellowship in shared grief. Most players sat alone, quietly scrolling through their phones. Others, like Armando Bacot and Caleb Love and R.J. Davis, answered the same questions they’ve tried to answer for weeks, if not months.

The script has become nothing if not familiar. The difference now, though, is time is running out.

And so what could the Tar Heels do? What could they change? What could they try that they haven’t already tried? Bacot, the senior center, considered the question for a moment before offering a slight head shake, followed by: “Yeah, I don’t know.”

At the other end of the room, R.J. Davis acknowledged the obvious — that “it’s definitely been a rocky journey for us,” as he put it — while repeating his head coach’s talking points. In the moments after defeat, Hubert Davis reminded his team that it still had goals to play for, that there was still time, that it had to “fight,” as more than one of his players described his messaging.

“He’s keeping our spirits high,” R.J. Davis said. “Just to keep battling. Keep fighting. You know, this is not how we predicted the season was going to go. But the best thing we could do right now is remain together.”

Love, who spent several minutes with his head in his hands, trying to process all there was to process following UNC’s fifth loss in its past six games, put it more bluntly: “Don’t quit.”

In a way, the postgame scene was difficult to process. Here were the Tar Heels, months removed from entering the season No. 1, left to ponder their precarious position. Here were the Tar Heels, whose social media team back in October shared a mock Sports Illustrated cover in homage of the Dean Smith and Sam Perkins and James Worthy Tar Heels of 1981-82, left to try to explain another second-half meltdown and another game gone wrong.

In another way, though, the defeat on Sunday wasn’t difficult to understand at all. It was a continuation of what UNC has been since November, when it began the season with uninspired victories against the likes of UNC-Wilmington and Gardner Webb and Portland. The thought went, for so long, that the Tar Heels would turn it on. Just wait. They’ll be fine. See you in March. And now March is almost here, and the NCAA tournament may well go on without UNC.

Hubert Davis, faithful as he is, hasn’t given up. He rejected the notion that his hopeful rhetoric isn’t getting through. “Sometimes,” he said of positive results, “it doesn’t come when you want it, where you want it, how you want it, in a manner in which you want it, at the time that you want it.”

“That’s life,” he said. “And so what the key is, is to understand and to continue to get back up and continue to fight. That’s what Carolina has always been about. That’s what this team has always been about. And it’s not even a choice. That’s the only direction that you can go.”

His team walked off the court amid a loud chant of “N-I-T.” Davis remained a believer.

The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are running out of time to justify his faith. The memory of last April grows more distant.

Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.

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