UNC basketball’s RJ Davis makes Dean Smith Center history in win over Miami

Well, guess that ends any debate about the ACC Player of the Year.

Not that there has been much debate — or, not until recently. North Carolina guard RJ Davis, the leading scorer on the league’s first-place team, has been the proverbial frontrunner most of this season, dating back to his stretch of eight straight 20-point games in late November and December. And while other ACC players have had their moments in the sun — Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, Pittsburgh’s Blake Hinson, Clemson’s PJ Hall — none has quite matched the consistency of the Tar Heels’ senior guard.

None until Wake Forest’s Hunter Sallis, that is. Sallis — a former five-star recruit, and the latest transfer thriving in Steve Forbes’ backcourt rehabilitation program — dropped 29 dizzying points against Duke on Saturday, in arguably the best ACC game this season. Sallis made five 3-pointers (which tied his career high) and notched six assists, too, as the Demon Deacons earned the resume-affirming win they desperately needed; they seem likely to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Forbes.

And as for Sallis? The Venn diagram of Wake’s rising bottom line, and his current hot streak, is two perfectly overlapped circles. During his past five games, Sallis is averaging 22.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists, while making 66.7 percent of his nearly five 3-point tries per game. It is … unreal production, which (rightfully) caused those invested in the ACC to go: “Huh, are we sure this guy can’t be Player of the Year?”

And then Davis happened on Monday night on national television — and, well, no disrespect to Sallis, but that counterargument as to who is the conference’s best player? It lasted all of 48 hours.

Clearly, it’s Davis, who scored a career-high 42 points against Miami on Monday and almost single-handedly willed the No. 9 Tar Heels to a 75-71 win.

“He put the team on his back,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said.

RJ Davis scored 42 points Monday night, the most points a UNC player has scored in the Dean Smith Center. (Bob Donnan / USA Today)

It’s the most points a UNC player has scored in the Dean Smith Center, breaking Tyler Hansbrough’s old mark of 40 — and any time you invoke Psycho T’s name in Chapel Hill, you’re doing something right. It nearly doubled Davis’ already impressive nightly scoring average, which is on pace to be the highest for any Tar Heels guard since the legendary Charlie Scott. It makes Davis only the seventh player in program history, and the first since Shammond Williams in 1998, to score 42 in a game.

And it is the perfect reminder, at the perfect time, that North Carolina is not where it is today — a national title contender in control of its destiny in the ACC, which it hasn’t won since 2019 — without Davis. Monday night was just the latest confirmation of how the diminutive guard plays with a much larger game.

“He hadn’t scored 42 points, but the type of performance that he had tonight,” Hubert Davis said, “he’s been having all season.”

That it came amidst any uncertainty now seems foolish. Davis scored only 12 points in 37 minutes on Saturday at Virginia, and there was at least some question as to how he would respond to a 1-for-14 shooting performance. But he drained a 3 on UNC’s first offensive possession on Monday, setting the tone for all that came next. He finished the first half with 21 points and eight made shots. The rest of his teammates combined? Only 16 points and seven made shots.

Davis followed up his third 20-point half of the season with … his fourth 20-point half of the season. He tied his previous career-high of 36, which he set in January vs. Wake Forest, on a 3 with 4:51 to play, and immediately followed that with another stepback 3 just 34 seconds later. (After the second one, he appeared to turn to UNC’s bench and give his variation of the Michael Jordan shrug. Points for showmanship.) Davis then made three free throws during the final few minutes, as North Carolina held off a furious Miami comeback; the Hurricanes rolled off an 11-0 run to make it a one-possession game for most of the final minute.

But ultimately, North Carolina won because it had the most prolific player on the court — and really, one of the most prolific in the country this season. The Athletic named Davis to its Midseason All-America team, and the honor seems a foregone conclusion for the 6-foot senior. After sharing the backcourt with current Arizona guard Caleb Love for the past three seasons, Davis has broken out as the team’s current star, and he’s well on his way to having his jersey honored in the Smith Center rafters.

That now seems fitting, right? The player who scores the most points in the building gets his name remembered there forever.

(Photo: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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