UNC honors Eric Montross and the past, then shows what its future can be in win over Oklahoma
CHARLOTTE — There will never be another Eric Montross.
Or judge based on the roar of the Carolina faithful after a pregame moment of silence, many with wet eyes and all of them with full hearts, showed that at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte on Wednesday night.
But “Big E,” the North Carolina All-American, national champion, husband, father, friend to all who passed away far too soon from cancer earlier this week, was undoubtedly beaming proud at the performance his Tar Heels put on at the Jumpman Invitational in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels played their best defense of the season, harassing and haranguing No. 7 Oklahoma throughout the evening on their way to an 81-69 win. In the first half alone, Carolina collected 7 steals and 6 blocks, using tenacious defense to unleash a Tar Heel staple: transition offense. Carolina scored 13 points off steals or blocks in the first half, building a 7-point halftime lead they would never relinquish. The Tar Heels finished with 23 transition points, their 7th game this season with more than 20 transition points a year removed from having 6 games all year with that level of transition success.
Montross, the All-American who would famously bloody his jersey and at times, his face, doing the little things that impact winning, would have beamed at the play of Tar Heel freshman Zayden High off the bench. The big Texan’s numbers won’t wow you in the box score (0 points, 3 rebounds), but he played a season-high 12 minutes with Harrison Ingram battling foul trouble against Oklahoma’s deep frontcourt and earned the praise of his head coach for the efforts.
“Did you see Zayden’s energy?” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said following the game.
“He competes and I love it. When you see that type of passion – and that will and that want-to – I tell ’em, ‘I don’t know how you play this game absent of emotion. If you’re doing something that you love, with teammates that you love, at a place that you love, I don’t know how you stay stoic.’ He lived that tonight. What a game.”
The Tar Heels are embracing roles, another thing that would make “Big E” beam.
How about Cormac Ryan?
If Montross was Carolina’s most identifiable, lovable player, Cormac Ryan, the graduate student from Notre Dame by way of hometown New York City, is embracing the role of opponent villain. When Carolina brought in Ryan, there were few mysteries about why. He could shoot the rock and stretch defenses for a team that struggled to do that too often a season ago. Ryan has done that already, and did it again Wednesday night, connecting on 1 3-pointer and beautifully attacking a sloppy Oklahoma closeout for an early layup to energize the crowd.
What wasn’t expected was his energy and defense. Ryan helped the Tar Heels bottle up Oklahoma’s physical guards, who entered the game leading an offense that ranked ranked in the top 10 nationally in 2-point percentage (61.4%). The Sooners were under 50% inside the arc on Wednesday night, and Ryan, who added 7 rebounds to his 13 points, was in the center of it. One sequence in the second half told the story, as Ryan played fierce defense keeping blooming Oklahoma star Otega Oweh in front of him before being ridiculously called for a block after Oweh pushed off. As Ryan got up from the floor and the overwhelmingly partisan crowd in Charlotte booed, Ryan egged the fans on, waving his arms and putting his hand to his ear. It was a “Montross” type moment, a player rubbing off floor burn to help the Tar Heels win.
Montross, of course, was a star, and Carolina has those too.
RJ Davis highlights vs Oklahoma definitely an all American 👌🏾👌🏾‼️‼️pic.twitter.com/26BXHYami7
— Jman (@jhardy252) December 21, 2023
The one shining brightest right now is RJ Davis, who scored 23 points to lead Carolina last night, drilling 5-of-9 3-point attempts. Davis, unthinkably left off the All-ACC ballot in the preseason, is playing like a Wooden Award winner.
Plus, he’s making big shots in the biggest moments. When Oklahoma pulled within 5 with 3 minutes remaining, Hubert Davis barked out a set play for RJ Davis, and the senior guard buried a 3 in front of a terrific screen to stretch the lead back to 8 and all but put the game to bed.
Star players during star things, Montross-style.
The win sends Carolina to the Christmas break with momentum, a win over a previously unbeaten, top-10 opponent and another Quad 1 win for the NCAA Tournament résumé. The Tar Heels close the most difficult portion of their schedule with wins over Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and their only losses have come at the hands of quality Power 6 opposition (Kentucky, UConn and Villanova). Duke has already lost an ACC game, and while Clemson appears to be a legitimate factor, the Tar Heels will enter the meat of ACC play in January a confident group, even if they aren’t the ACC favorites.
Better yet, the Tar Heels are figuring themselves out — who their stars are, how deep the bench is, and what they can be defensively,
All in for the better of the team.
Just the way Eric Montross would want it.