On Tuesday, the North Carolina men's basketball team's frontcourt came face-to-face with Pittsburgh’s Justin Champagnie, a 6-foot-6 two-way force who averages 20 points and 12 rebounds per game.
Despite Champagnie putting on a show of his own to the tune of 23 points and 10 rebounds, an offensive clinic from the Tar Heels' bigs led UNC to a 75-65 victory on Tuesday over the Panthers.
Heading into the game, UNC prepared for the challenges Champagnie presents. The Tar Heels aimed to limit his touches inside, prevent him from controlling the game offensively and keep his explosiveness in check.
“It worked a little bit, but 7-9 (shooting), that’s tough,” senior forward Garrison Brooks said.
North Carolina won the battle down low overall, garnering 48 points inside the paint to Pittsburgh’s 32. Despite UNC’s efforts, Champagnie's showing on the glass was made even more impressive with a pair of blocks and assists.
That outing forced sophomore forward Armando Bacot to answer for the Tar Heels. Bacot led the way for UNC with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks to match the Panthers' standout and ACC Player of the Year frontrunner. Brooks piled on another 16 points and six rebounds to make the showing from North Carolina's frontcourt even more impressive.
The game seemed effortless for Bacot, who executed on both ends of the floor. He hung on the rim after alley-oops, grabbed rebounds with ease and strongly held down the post on defense, but earlier this season it didn’t feel so easy for the sophomore.
“I remember being on the Blue Team for three weeks, I was subbing in for Duwe (Farris)," he said. "That kind of fired me up. Like me being literally the last man on the team."
The player that needed motivation earlier this season was nowhere to be seen on the floor tonight. The Bacot that took to the floor in Pittsburgh went toe-to-toe with one of his toughest opponents in the conference and didn’t flinch, going bucket-for-bucket and rebound-for-rebound to close out a definitive win against a tough ACC team on the road.
“(Bacot) works on his craft a lot. He is still just a student of the game every day, tries to get better every day,” Brooks said. “I think he’s gotten a lot more confident in his post moves, and he’s a terrific offensive rebounder. You can tell by the numbers.”
An increased confidence has played a key role in leading UNC to a turnaround this season, as the team has won six of its la st seven in ACC play. As the wins keep coming, it's clear that the Tar Heels' success is built from the inside out.
“Just as a trio (Bacot, Brooks and Sharpe), we’ve been kind of finding our swagger a little bit,” Bacot said.
Dominance in the paint has been a point of emphasis in successful UNC squads during the Roy Williams era, and flashes of UNC's capabilities down low were shown on Tuesday. Passing in the low post was efficient, the dunks were aggressive and the ball seemed to get in the paint with ease.
Still, Williams said UNC's mentality is to continue its improvement heading into the back half of its ACC schedule.
“I don’t ever think you friggin’ turn a corner. You’re in the ACC, you’re only as good as your last game,” Williams said. “I’ll go back to what I’ve said consistently — I think we are getting a little better and a little bit better.”
Some of the Tar Heels' biggest challenges still lie ahead, but what does seem clear is that when the bigs execute like they did against Pittsburgh, UNC is capable of competing against the best that the ACC has to offer.