No. 10 Vols, No. 17 Heels vie for early statement win

Tennessee and North Carolina are eager for a victory when they meet Wednesday in Chapel Hill, N.C., in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge.

Tennessee (4-2) dropped from No. 7 to No. 10 after going 1-2 at the Maui Invitational with losses to Purdue and Kansas, who were then ranked No. 2 and No. 1, respectively.

North Carolina (5-1) also tumbled three spots from No. 14 to No. 17 after going to 2-1 at the Battle 4 Atlantis with an overtime loss to then-unranked Villanova.

While the Volunteers’ run in Hawaii ended with back-to-back losses, the Tar Heels were able to redeem themselves, claiming an 87-72 victory over then-No. 20 Arkansas in the third-place game in the Bahamas. That contest featured a career-high-tying 30 points from RJ Davis, who shot 10-for-10 from the foul line.

Davis was named to the Battle 4 Atlantis all-tournament team and was voted ACC Player of the Week averaging 22 points and three assists across three neutral-site games while also shooting 35 percent (7-for-20) from 3-point range. Against Arkansas, Davis scored 21 points in the second half.

“I know I always have the capability of doing that,” RJ Davis said. “I always have the ultimate confidence in myself to step up in big-time games. That’s what I practiced mentally and physically this offseason. I knew this was a big year for me, going into my senior year. I wanted to have a great one.”

The Tar Heels beat the Razorbacks without starting guard Cormac Ryan, who exited the Villanova loss late with an apparent foot injury. North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said he didn’t have a timetable for when Ryan might return. The transfer from Notre Dame is averaging 10.8 points per game, which is fourth best on the team, and is 14-for-15 (93.3 percent) from the free-throw line.

Elliot Cadeau started in Ryan’s place against the Razorbacks, and he logged seven points and three assists before fouling out after 26 minutes of action. Harrison Ingram provided a big boost for the Tar Heels, too, registering 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes.

“This is a tough group and a together group,” Hubert Davis said. “The huddles, the communication, the encouragement is off the chart. Cormac didn’t play. Before the game, I’ve never seen a player as emotional as he was because he couldn’t play. What he meant to us on the bench and his communication with the guys, it was as if he was out there on the floor.”

Tennessee started off the Maui Invitational with a double-digit win over Syracuse, then kept things close against Purdue and Kansas, losing to the Boilermakers 71-67 and falling to the Jayhawks 69-60. Against Kansas, the Volunteers led by three points early in the second half, but the Jayhawks eventually pulled away, ending the game with a 10-5 run.

“Just disappointed with our inconsistency. We’re just inconsistent,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We need to know night to night what we’re going to get. This tournament, I think, was great for us.”

Santiago Vescovi led the Volunteers in the loss with 21 points. Dalton Knecht tops the team in scoring on the season at 17.5 points per game.

“One thing about him, he’s all about winning,” Barnes said of Vescovi. “I don’t think he cares if he scores. I mean, really and truly, we tell him we need him to shoot the ball a little bit more, but he knows when he’s got it and when he doesn’t. If he doesn’t have it, he’s going to find a way to impact the game some other way. We need some other guys to learn that.”

The two teams last met on Nov. 21, 2021, at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Uncasville, Conn., where the Volunteers produced an 89-72 win.