In March, the UNC men’s basketball team was speechless. Syracuse had trounced the Tar Heels by a near 30-point advantage, sending them packing in what would be a devastating season finale to cap off an overwhelmingly ugly season.
But if sophomore forward Armando Bacot made one thing clear a few weeks ago after a hard-fought win against Kentucky, this year's UNC team is different.
"This isn't last year," Bacot said after defeating the Wildcats. "We're not going for none of that shit this year."
In relation to UNC being able to close out down-to-the-wire games, he made a distinctive statement about the grit of this team — a statement that has held up as the Tar Heels have won three straight games by single-digits, with the latest iteration being a solid 81-75 win over Syracuse Tuesday night, despite allowing multiple runs by the Orange.
“We’ve talked all season about finishing games with our brain and our heart, both,” head coach Roy Williams said after the Syracuse win. “I think we did that.”
Sure, one could make quips about the team coming into Tuesday night’s game with a chip on its shoulder, prepared and hardened for a revenge tour to right the past in dramatic fashion. But, the dramatics aren’t necessary.
Williams said it best — the Tar Heels just needed to play with heart.
For a team that has struggled with confidence and shooting, grit was the recipe for success — and the stat sheets will show that playing with grit payed off. Senior forward Garrison Brooks and Bacot hosted a clinic in rebounding, with 10 and 12, respectively.
With high levels of scoring in the paint beginning to click and the veterans’ ability to physically bully their opponents in the paint, Bacot notched his third double-double of the season and Brooks snagged his first. With UNC out-rebounding Syracuse by 17 and getting crucial post touches in moments when the backcourt shooting faltered, UNC went back to its bread and butter.
It was a flash of quintessential UNC basketball. It was the tried and true gritty play – so missed by fans for the last season and a half – that gave UNC redemption over Syracuse and proved an upward trend after a slow 0-2 ACC start. The Tar Heels' success in closing the game begs the question: just how close are they to reaching their full potential?
“We’re right there — even though we haven’t been winning as pretty as you guys or some of the fans would like,” junior wing Leaky Black said. “Just getting these games under our belt, it says a lot about this team. We just need to keep striving.”
In a game that showed encouraging signs for players and fans of a team that's progressing, there is still a consensus among the team that they have yet to play anywhere near their best game.
Despite Tuesday's win, UNC wants more.
“I’m not really excited about the win today,” Bacot said. “It’s a win, but I know there’s another level.”
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