Despite playing his best game in a Tar Heel uniform just three days earlier, Armando Bacot walked into the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday expecting to be nothing more than a 6-10, 240-pound decoy.
With a matchup against Virginia – a notorious defensive-minded team – looming, the junior forward worried about the defensive scheme that held him to just 26 points in three career outings against the Cavaliers. He told his sophomore teammates, Caleb Love and RJ Davis, that a big game was needed in case he went missing in action.
Two of his early shots were blocked, perhaps reaffirming his fears about the team that had beaten the Tar Heels in seven consecutive tries.
But once the offense began to fall into the Cavaliers’ defensive traps, UNC went back to the basics, feeding Bacot repeatedly as he began to will his way inside.
When he stepped off the court with a smile on his face and a rejuvenated crowd chanting his name, there was little doubt that he had conquered his most difficult challenger.
29 points. 22 rebounds. Two career-highs that helped his team secure a much-needed 74-58 win over Virginia.
“I told my teammates I can be the best screener or whatever and I’d play hard and help us win, but I’d be lying if I said I expected to play this good this game, but it was great,” Bacot said.
After recording a double-double in the first half against Notre Dame on Wednesday, Bacot racked up 12 points and eight rebounds in the opening period on Saturday. He upped the ante in the second half, scoring 17 points and grabbing 14 rebounds to notch the program’s first 20-20 statline since 2016.
“That’s the best performance I’ve seen anybody against Virginia that I can remember,” head coach Hubert Davis said. "I’m very, very proud of Armando."
Part of Bacot’s previous struggles against Virginia can be attributed to the Cavaliers’ reputation for doubling bigger players inside, but as the game progressed, Bacot worked his way into a bevy of one-on one matchups, specifically because of the attention that graduate forward Brady Manek drew from the perimeter.
Despite being without fellow marksmen Dawson Garcia and Kerwin Walton, Manek’s 19 points and five triples opened up opportunities for Bacot to operate down low, but Bacot’s ability to move without the ball made the looks even easier.
“His hands are overlooked at times — he’s one of the easiest guys to throw it into,” Manek said. “I can throw it in from the top, from the wing or from the baseline and it’s usually hitting him in the hands because he gets that position.”
Although the win boosts the team’s record to 3-1 in conference play and 11-4 overall, the Tar Heels are still distant from where they expected to be at the beginning of the season. They have yet to beat a team currently ranked in the top 25, and have often played down to their competition to only narrowly escape.
But just a mere 64 hours removed from Bacot sitting with his hand in his fist after the team squandered his 21-point, 17-rebound performance in a loss against Notre Dame, the win in Saturday showed the pieces are in place for improvement.
And Bacot should be at the center of attention.
“It’s something we’ve got to keep doing every game. We can’t just do it one game and have a lapse the next game,” Bacot said. “We can’t keep showing flashes. It’s getting later on into the season, and we’ve got to put it all together now."
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