Rematch with Kansas could exorcise 1991 demons for Hubert Davis

North Carolina’s Hubert Davis celebrates on the court with teammates after the Tar Heels defeated Temple 75-72 in the NCAA East Regional championship game at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., on March 24, 1991. Davis has the strong connection to North Carolina’s storied men’s basketball program as a former Tar Heels player under Dean Smith and assistant coach under Roy Williams. Now he’s a first-time college head coach set to put his own touches on the UNC program. (Bill Kostroun / AP Photo)

NEW ORLEANS — For a quarter century, whenever Hubert Davis needed a good cry, he knew what to watch.

“Prior to us winning the national championship in 2017, from 1991 to 2017, I had to watch that game at least once every year,” he said.

The game in question was on March 30, 1991, in Indianapolis. Davis and the Tar Heels against Kansas in the Final Four.

Kansas was coached by Roy Williams at the time, and the Jayhawks beat Williams’ alma mater 79-73, ending Davis’ junior season.

Now, in his first year as UNC’s head coach, Hubert Davis once again gets to face Kansas in the Final Four. The Tar Heels will play the Jayhawks on Monday night with the national championship at stake.

Davis hit 9 of 16 from the field in that game and 2 of 4 from 3-point range to score a game-high 25 points. He added five rebounds, an assist and a steal, all in a losing effort.

“That was the best team I ever played with,” Davis said. “With King (Rice), Rick (Fox) and Pete Chilcutt as our seniors. (Sophomore) George Lynch … we were as connected as this team is connected now. We really felt like we had a chance to win the national championship, and we came up short.”

So Davis watched the game again during his senior year at Carolina. He watched it at least a dozen times while playing in the NBA. There were eight more viewings after his retirement as a player, when Davis worked for ESPN, among other ventures. And then he watched it another half-dozen times while serving as Roy Williams’ assistant and waiting for that elusive national title.

“That was the game where Coach (Dean) Smith got two technical fouls and got kicked out,” Davis said. “It was an emotional game, and an emotional end to the season. Playing at Carolina, the thing I always wanted was to cut down the nets as a player. We came so close, but we weren’t able to have that experience. That was the toughest loss I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”

While Davis was at his best, recording his highest point total in a dozen NCAA Tournament games in his college career, his teammates couldn’t provide a complementary spark. The three seniors shot a combined 8 of 36 with seven turnovers and 10 fouls. Lynch had four turnovers and fouled out. The Tar Heels other than Davis shot .333 from the field and 1 of 14 from 3. Smith’s ejection late in the game was one additional needle in a frustrating two-plus hours of viewing.

“It would make me cry,” Davis admitted. “I was hoping that … It’s interesting. Every time I watched it, I would think it’s going to turn out differently. And I just did.”

In 2017, Davis was an assistant coach under Williams, and the Tar Heels trailed Gonzaga at halftime of the national championship game. This was the year after UNC lost to Villanova at the buzzer on Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer, robbing Davis of his best opportunity to that point to win a title as a member of the coaching staff.

Davis stepped up in the locker room and challenged the 2017 Tar Heels.

“You don’t know when you’re going to get this chance again,” he said, thinking of his one trip to the Final Four in 1991.

The Tar Heels rallied, beating Gonzaga for the title, and Davis was able to, at long last, retire his recording of the loss to the Jayhawks.

“I’m thankful that I had an experience — or an opportunity to be an assistant coach and be part of this again and be part of the championship of 2017,” he said. “But that loss was a hard one to take.”

Now the Jayhawks loom in front of Davis again. Now a head coach, he can use Monday’s game to exorcise the demons from 1991 forever.

“One of the things I told the guys before we came to New Orleans — I said the best experience is tears,” he recalled. “The best experience I had as a player, hands down, was going to the Final Four. It was a place of tears, but that was the best place, personally, that I experienced. I told them, I played 12 years in the NBA, and that was my finest moment as a basketball player, just being a part of that.”

Win or lose, tears will flow on Monday night, and there’s a good chance the game will go into the repeat viewing rotation in the Davis household.