When the North Carolina men’s basketball team really needs a victory, they know to turn to junior Armando Bacot. In UNC’s biggest wins this season, Bacot has been the focal point, attacking the rim and crashing the glass hard to overwhelm opposing paint defenders.
“I personally think he’s ACC Player of the Year,” head coach Hubert Davis said after a big win over Florida State this past weekend.
So when Pittsburgh rolled into Chapel Hill Wednesday, the Panthers knew who to target.
Bacot was essentially a non-factor in the 76-67 loss, hindered by foul trouble and Pittsburgh’s gritty inside defense. The big man put up just seven points and eight rebounds in the loss, and even those numbers overstate the impact he had. The Panthers’ athletic frontcourt made Bacot uncomfortable with the ball in his hands all night. He committed three turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the game, all before taking his first field goal attempt.
With the paint locked up, UNC was forced to the perimeter. However, the shots just weren’t falling for all the players that the team depends on for important buckets.
Sophomore guard Caleb Love missed all five of his first half 3-point attempts. Graduate forward Brady Manek — Bacot’s floor-stretching frontcourt partner — missed his last six shots from behind the arc.
“We weren’t finishing around the basket and we weren’t making jump shots.” Love said. “So they kind of took us out of everything.”
With a stagnant offense, UNC limped into halftime trailing 40-23, and was never able to climb out of that hole.
At the heart of Bacot’s uncharacteristic performance was Pittsburgh's John Hugley. Rarely is Bacot outmuscled, but the Panther forward used all the strength in his bulky, 6-9 frame to his advantage. More than once, Hugley forcefully backed down Bacot, positioning himself for an easy bucket under the basket.
“Pitt came in with the game plan and the mindset to be physical, to make this a very tough and will-and-want-to type of game,” Davis said.
Hugley was the embodiment of that will-and-want-to. He was everything that Bacot wasn't — strong, aggressive and relentless on defense. It was all too fitting when Hugley stuffed Bacot’s first shot attempt of the second half.
With 15 minutes to play, UNC had gained momentum after a four-point swing reduced its deficit to 13. With another defensive stop and score, UNC had a chance to turn the tide of the game.
The Tar Heels played quality defense for the first 20 seconds of the shot clock, but, of course, Hugley was there yet again. He pulled up from the wing, rising over Bacot’s outstretched arms to knock down a triple. Bacot was called for a shooting foul and Hugley converted the four-point play to push Pittsburgh’s lead back up to 17.
“There (were) a number of plays that were self induced that hurt us in our ability to be able to come back,” Davis said. “That was one of those plays.”
UNC eventually did rouse a late comeback effort, coming within six points of the tie with less than two minutes remaining. But Bacot — a non-shooter burdened with four fouls — didn’t play in those crucial minutes.
Instead, Davis opted to play a smaller lineup of shooters and switch to zone defense as Bacot looked on from the bench.
“I felt like zone kind of bothered them a little bit, and it just wasn't enough,” senior guard Leaky Black said.
Despite cutting it to a two-possession game, UNC couldn’t find the late-game rim protection it needed to finish the job. Manek struggled to stop Hugley, who scored five straight points to help the Panthers pull away for good. In most other games, Bacot would be there in crunch time to serve as a defensive anchor down low.
This loss highlighted the Tar Heels’ lack of toughness with Bacot being absent, something remaining opponents will surely take note of. With this loss, UNC only faces more uncertainty as tournament season approaches.
“At the end of the day, there's been more times than not that we don't handle and we can't respond to (Pittsburgh’s) type of physicality,” Davis said. “And that's something specifically that we're going to have to change really quickly.”
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