Scott Fowler

Close loss to UNC proves Davidson can play with anyone

Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge (23) defends against North Carolina's Justin Jackson (44) late in the second half of Wednesday’s game at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Aldridge finished with 22 points but UNC won 83-74.
Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge (23) defends against North Carolina's Justin Jackson (44) late in the second half of Wednesday’s game at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Aldridge finished with 22 points but UNC won 83-74. DavidsonPhotos.com

If there was any doubt about whether Davidson would be a legitimate NCAA tournament contender this season, that was erased Wednesday night.

Davidson can flat-out play, and the Wildcats’ 83-74 loss to No. 7 North Carolina shouldn’t detract from that fact.

Down 16 points midway through the second half at the Smith Center, Davidson was standing on a precipice that a lot of teams fall over. Instead, the Wildcats threw a very good scare into UNC, coming all the way back to only three points down with 1:55 to go behind the nation’s No. 1 scoring duo of Jack Gibbs (who ended up with 30 points) and Peyton Aldridge (22).

“I’m proud of our guys,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. “I loved the way they fought.”

Once Davidson had cut the lead to three, the Tar Heels (9-1) missed shots on their next two possessions. But the athleticism of UNC’s big men won the day. Both shots got rebounded by Tar Heels and were converted into four free throws. Davidson’s run was finally done.

Before it ended, though, it got UNC coach Roy Williams storming mad.

“We sucked, OK?” Williams said at one point in his press conference.

And also: “It was not fun tonight. It was as frustrating as I can ever remember to be honest with you. ... I really think [the Wildcats] executed their stuff better than we executed our stuff on both ends of the court.”

Davidson (5-3) won’t consider this a moral victory, but its fans should. That’s a really good Tar Heel team — admittedly without point guard Joel Berry for this game — and it will contend for the national title. Davidson lost by 33 to UNC a year ago in the Smith Center. This time the Wildcats hung around the whole night despite shooting poorly from 3-point range (8-for-29).

Davidson beautifully double-teamed UNC’s big men on every possession close to the basket, and the resulting chaos forced Williams to go to his bench early and pull out Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.

“Kennedy and Isaiah did absolutely nothing,” Williams fumed.

“I thought our double of the post was as good as I’ve ever seen it,” McKillop said.

Davidson led both 7-0 and 10-3 early. But to win this game, Davidson was ultimately going to have to shoot extremely well because the Tar Heels are athletically superior.

Rusty Reigel tried his best to guard UNC’s Justin Jackson, but he was giving up half a foot in height. Jackson had 27 points and eight rebounds and was UNC’s difference-maker.

“I feel like some guys just didn’t come out to play,” Jackson said, echoing his coach’s theme. “I made my mistakes for sure. But some guys just came out, lollygagged and went through the motions.”

Williams said he thought some of his players believed beating Davidson would be “easy,” and that’s understandable to an extent. UNC walloped the Wildcats by 33 points a season ago.

But this is a different Davidson team, and one that won’t be easily walloped. It is bigger, better defensively and might even pull off an upset of Kansas in its next game Dec. 17 if it shoots the ball better.

Stephen Curry told me recently these Wildcats were going to make the NCAA tournament, and that’s not just his Davidson pride talking. Davidson is plenty good enough to do just that.

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