In a throwback championship rematch, in a throwback atmosphere – with nearly 20,000 fans in the Dean E. Smith Center for the first time in almost two years – Hubert Davis turned to a throwback approach.
During the halftime break, with his team somehow leading No. 24 Michigan by two points despite shooting just 36 percent from the field, the first-year head coach scanned the box score and noticed an interesting crinkle — Michigan’s 7-foot-1 All-American center Hunter Dickinson already had two fouls.
After spending the offseason prioritizing the team’s new focus on perimeter play, looking to pick up the first statement win of his career, he turned to his big men and told them to attack.
Every. Single. Time.
After forcing foul number three on the previous play, junior forward Armando Bacot got into his usual position on the right block, drove left and spun back into the body of his former AAU teammate for an and-one, sending Michigan’s most dependable defender and scoring option to the bench. From there, the Tar Heels bullied the Wolverines – both offensively and defensively – to build a 25-point lead and coast to a 72-51 win.
“We went to me three or four plays in a row, and I just got into my bag and did what I do,” Bacot said.
In UNC’s previous two tests against ranked opponents – now No. 2 Purdue and No. 13 Tennessee in the Hall of Fame Tipoff in mid-November – the team was dominated inside, getting outscored by 24 and 32 points in that paint.
Although the Tar Heels only held a 34-20 advantage in the category on Wednesday, each basket wore down the Wolverines, and simultaneously, brought the crowd back to life.
In what became maybe Bacot’s biggest home win in a truly energetic atmosphere, he and sophomore forward transfer Dawson Garcia combined for 25 points and 18 rebounds and anchored a defense that held Michigan to just 35 percent shooting.
“Coming off that game against Purdue, it just left a real bad taste in my mouth,” Bacot said. “I’ve been itching to play another big-time big at my position and I just needed to go out there and show I’m the elite defender I know I am.”
Bacot wasn’t the only player looking to send a message, though. After hearing the doubters come to life during his inefficient first season, sophomore guard Caleb Love dunked, side-stepped and step-backed his way to a team-leading 22-point performance.
As the Wolverines focused on slowing down UNC’s frontcourt, Love and the rest of the guards were given room to create on the outside, allowing the Tar Heels to knock down five threes in the second half.
“I was going off the screens and they weren’t covering it, so I just picked them apart and got my teammates open and created shots for myself,” Love said.
After losing back-to-back games in November for the first time since 2010, it was easy for the Tar Heels to look ahead to another matchup against a ranked team, which was displayed in their lethargic performance against UNC-Asheville last Tuesday.
Throughout practice this week, the Tar Heels focused on paying attention to the small details. For a team that came into the game allowing opponents to score 19 points per game off turnovers in the previous four outings, UNC coughed up the ball only six times, leading to four Michigan points.
“If we just focus on the preparation, the process and the practice, then the play will take care of itself. Yesterday, we had the best practice I can remember this year,” Davis said. "The energy and effort on the defensive end was great. On the offensive end, we were sharing the basketball and were excited about our teammates’ success — we played together as a team, and they did the same thing tonight against Michigan."
Though they likely won’t come in the form as physically large as the imposing center who was held to just four points, even bigger tests wait for UNC, as No. 5 UCLA and conference play loom ahead in the coming weeks.
But for all the changes the Tar Heels have already demonstrated with a new coach and mostly new roster, two constants remain.
They hear the murmurs, and aren't afraid to quiet them the old-fashioned way.
“We heard all the chatter and we took it personal,” Love said. “A lot of people have been talking about how bad we are or how bad we play on defense, so this was a statement game and we’re going to keep going.”
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