RJ Davis takes over as No. 4 UNC reaches ACC Tournament final by beating Pitt 72-65

WASHINGTON (AP) — Seconds after No. 4 North Carolina won to advance to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament final, RJ Davis and Armando Bacot beelined toward each other to celebrate.

“RJ, he’s been our closer all year and he hit some huge shots, so I was really just embracing him and telling him thank you,” Bacot said.

Thanks to Davis, who took over down the stretch and finished with 25 points, North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 72-65 on Friday night, winning an eighth consecutive game and moving into the driver's seat for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He and Bacot scored UNC's final 18 points of the game.

“Just super excited to get a chance to play in the championship,” said Bacot, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds. “It was a tough game, and it got close down in the stretch and I think me and RJ just really wanted to make plays so we can win the game.”

The Tar Heels' path to one of the four NCAA top seeds cleared with a couple of results elsewhere: fifth-ranked Tennessee losing 73-56 to Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals and No. 6 Arizona getting beat by Oregon in the Pac-12 semis.

UNC (27-6, 17-3) still had to take care of business against an opponent in Pitt (22-11, 12-8), with a strong NCAA Tournament case playing to lock up a spot.

The Panthers led by as many as nine in the first half and kept punching back until late, tying it at 62 with about four minutes left until Davis hit just his second 3-pointer to put the Tar Heels ahead.

After seven lead changes throughout, they never trailed again, with Davis grabbing a crucial rebound and hitting a long 3 in the final minutes to help put it away. The unanimous ACC player of the year scored 19 points in the second half.

“The player of the year stepped up and made plays,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “You have to tip your hat to him. He made a deep 3, a 28-footer, some pullups. He just made plays.”

Tenth-seeded North Carolina State is up next in the final on Saturday night after beating Virginia 73-65 in overtime. It's UNC's first appearance in the final since 2018, and one more victory would give the program its first ACC Tournament title since 2016 when it was also held in Washington.

“We set goals in the beginning of the year, and for us to be one more game away means a lot,” Davis said. “But the job’s not finished.”

Roy Williams, the Tar Heels' coach at the time who led them to three national championships, fittingly watched in the first row at halfcourt in Carolina blue. And he was far from alone, with UNC fans making up most of the crowd for the semifinals 24 hours after rival Duke was eliminated.

Carlton Carrington led Pitt with 24 points, and Jaland Lowe had 17. Even with the loss, the Panthers stand a good chance of making the NCAA Tournament after beating Wake Forest in the quarterfinals and giving one of the nation's top teams all it could handle.

“We'll see if we're in,” Capel said.

Guard Ishmael Leggett added, “I 100% believe that we’re an NCAA Tournament team, regardless of what anybody says."

BIG PICTURE

Pitt: Capel thinks his team this year has a better resume than 2022-23, when it reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “We have become a really good basketball team,” Capel said. “We could be a team that could be dangerous in the tournament.”

UNC: The Tar Heels are rounding into form at the perfect time to make their top-seed case to the selection committee and look poised to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. With Davis and Bacot trading back and forth the Batman and Robin roles and plenty of complementary players able to step up, UNC is going to be a tough out against anyone.

UP NEXT

While Pitt sweats out Selection Sunday, UNC will play for the 19th ACC Tournament championship in program history on Saturday against North Carolina State.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball