CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Armando Bacot has received plaudits this season for taking a backseat offensively, letting RJ Davis be the offensive focal point and putting in more effort defensively and in doing the little things on offense.
Coach Hubert Davis didn’t quite see it that way, however, saying earlier in the week that North Carolina needed Bacot to return to his dominance of the last few seasons for the Tar Heels to reach their full potential.
“In order for us to do what we want to do, we need that,” Davis told ESPN on Thursday. “We need him to be a dude down low. There is no chance of us achieving anything that we want without Armando putting up big numbers.”
Bacot got the message loud and clear, as the All-American big man finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists as No. 3 North Carolina cruised to a 93-84 win over No. 7 Duke.
He set the tone by scoring on Carolina’s opening possession and controlled the paint from that point forward, coming up with big baskets multiple times in the second half when it looked like Duke was on the verge of making a run. Bacot’s counterpart, Kyle Filipowski, did finish with 22 points, but struggled to make shots from the perimeter (1-for-6 from 3) and did most of his damage later in the second half when Carolina was already up double-digits.
“I think at the end of the day, the ACC runs through me,” Bacot said after the game. “All of the top bigs I played against — going into every matchup, I feel like I’m going to win … On these matchups, I take ’em a little bit more personal and I knew I would dominate.”
After Bacot averaged 6.3 points and 6.7 rebounds over his past three games, the fifth-year senior and his third-year head coach had their usual weekly meeting. But this time, there was a focus on figuring out how to return Bacot to his dominant form of the last few seasons, like when he averaged 16.3 points and 13.1 rebounds as a junior or 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds a year ago.
There was an emphasis on being more aggressive when he got the ball around the rim, but Davis also wanted to make adjustments to get Bacot the ball in a better position to score.
“It was like, what’s some different ways I want to be able to get the ball in places where teams aren’t expecting it, they can’t double- and triple-team me,” Bacot said. “Credit to coach Davis and coach [Brad] Frederick, they drew up some amazing plays that got the big off my body and gave me time to be able to have enough time to make a good move, a strong move at the basket.”
“We had a really nice time together,” Davis added. “Talking about him and what is needed for him, personally, and for our team to be the best that it can be. People have told me that he has said that he’s taken a reserve role, it’s this person’s team, [his] role has changed — and I told him, I never told you that … I thought it was important to get off to a good start, and he was able to do that. And I felt like that gave him confidence to be able to be a force and be effective on the offensive end. When he’s dominant down low in the post like that, it just opens everything up for us.”
With Bacot leading the way in his final home game against Duke — he was the first player with 25 points, 10 boards and 5 assists in a Duke-UNC game in the last 25 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information research — North Carolina had its best offensive performance since mid-January. The 93 points the Tar Heels scored were the most they’ve scored since a Jan. 13 win over Syracuse and the 1.22 points per possession were the highest since Jan. 17 against Louisville.
“It starts and ends with Armando,” guard Cormac Ryan said. “He’s one of our engines and he’s a huge part of this team making a deep run. And we have all the faith in the world that he’s going to help us just like he did tonight as we go down the stretch.”
While the first half was a back-and-forth affair with neither team clearly earning the upper hand, Duke was struggling to generate consistent offense outside of Jeremy Roach and Jared McCain. The Blue Devils tied the game at 22 on a Roach 3-pointer with 8:42 remaining in the opening period, but that was the last time they were level with Carolina.
The Tar Heels were able to get their transition game going, jump-started by freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau and buoyed by the 3-point shooting of Harrison Ingram. In the first half, UNC had 10 points off turnovers and 12 fast-break points.
North Carolina went on a 13-6 run early in the second half to push its lead to 15 points on an Ingram jumper and Duke never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
While Duke was able to score 84 points because of its prowess around the rim — the Blue Devils scored their most paint points against UNC over the last 15 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information research — their struggles from the perimeter were the difference in the game. They entered the weekend with the ACC’s best 3-point shooting offense, while Carolina had the league’s best 3-point shooting defense. And on Saturday, Duke shot just 5-for-19 from 3-point range, going only 2-for-11 in the second half.
The Tar Heels had an answer for every Blue Devils’ run. They cut the lead to eight and McCain had a corner 3 with a chance to cut it to five, but it missed, and UNC responded with five straight points. After again cutting the lead to eight, Bacot finished a 3-point play and Seth Trimble got a basket to push the lead back to 13. A Davis 3-pointer with 2:34 left to again reestablish Carolina’s 13-point lead was the dagger.
The game looked like it would slowly wind down to a comfortable Carolina victory, but the final minute reminded the loud Dean Dome crowd it was still the best rivalry in the sport. Davis was hit in the face for the second time in the game, but after the officials went to the monitor to review, they assessed a flagrant foul on Davis on the rebound. After Filipowski missed his first free throw, the screens in the arena showed Rasheed Wallace’s famed “Ball Don’t Lie” clip.
Something to tuck away for the rematch on March 9.
“It’s going to be a good night,” Bacot said. “We’ll have a lot of fun tonight.”