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Strong paint presence opens up the floor for UNC men's basketball against N.C State

Junior forward Armando Bacot (5) goes for the goal during UNC"S rivalry matchup against NC State on Feb. 26, 2022 in PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. UNC won with a 84-74 final score, and Bacot left with 18 rebounds, matching Billy Cunningham's 1965 record for UNC rebounds against NC State.

Sometimes it was an open dunk, other times a floater or even an easy layup that the North Carolina men’s basketball team dropped in the PNC Arena on Saturday.

UNC could do whatever it wanted against the N.C. State Wolfpack, winning 84-74 on Saturday and leading by as many as 25. The team finished the game with 44 points in the paint, anchored by go-to big man and junior forward Armando Bacot.

Early into the season, N.C. State lost one of its key players in Manny Bates, a 6-foot-11 redshirt-junior slated for a breakout year coming into the season. Though he didn’t play in the earlier matchup against the Tar Heels, his absence was certainly felt Saturday for a team that had no deterrent for No. 5 in blue.

Bacot, who posted 18 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against N.C. State in the first matchup, delivered an encore performance in Raleigh with 28 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks.

He dunked inside every chance he got, getting easy passes from his frontcourt mate, graduate forward Brady Manek, as well as the team’s guards. They called plays for him early on to feel out the defense, allowing him to screen and roll to the rim. After seeing the Wolfpack’s strategy, the Tar Heels proceeded to play through him.

“Once I rolled and got position, they didn’t double team me,” Bacot said. “Right after that, we knew all game we were going to try to force it inside as much as we can.”

The team also took control of the boards once again, winning the rebounding battle 46-25. The team held a strong inside presence with Bacot throughout the game — one that the Wolfpack failed to match. It wasn’t just Bacot who propelled the team, though, as easy looks came from some of UNC’s guards getting finishes in the lane.

From there, the visiting team gave itself more options on the floor and continued to extend its lead. The Wolfpack never led, as it could not account for a UNC team that finished with four players scoring more than 15 points.

“We’re always trying to get it in the paint,” Bacot said. “We executed that today, and I think it’s something that we can look back at and build on.”

When a lot of attention did go to Bacot, sophomore guard Puff Johnson stepped up and delivered a career game for the Tar Heels. 

A reserve who received minimal playing time until recently this season, he finished with a career-high 16 points. He filled in for senior forward Leaky Black, who hyperextended his knee at the 4:31 mark in the first half.

“I felt my rhythm again, I felt my groove again,” Johnson said. 

Stepping up proved to be a theme for North Carolina on Saturday afternoon. The team fed off of Bacot’s performance by putting together a strong game in the paint, and Johnson especially raised his game when taking on Black’s minutes.

“The only job that you have is to be ready,” Davis said. “When I called Puff today, he was ready. He stepped up.”

For North Carolina, stringing together an offensive identity is crucial down the stretch with two games left. Though the team has capable outside shooters, they can be streaky as well. Despite the impressive win in the rematch against the Wolfpack, the team made just five of its 19 three-point attempts. 

Over-reliance on shots from distance has hindered the team at times this season, shooting just 33 percent in its two February losses to Duke and Pittsburgh. But UNC managed to overcome it on Saturday.

At times, teams have been able to match or exceed Bacot’s production, but his presence inside often opens things up for his teammates when he’s in a rhythm.

“Having such versatile players all around the floor on those screen plays opens up everything for us,” Bacot said.

Though Bacot is the team’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, followed not far behind by sophomore guard Caleb Love, having players to fall back on will be crucial moving into the ACC and NCAA Tournaments for UNC. The versatility that Bacot spoke of after the game has appeared in flashes, but the consistency is what North Carolina needs to sneak into the Big Dance.

With four players in the ACC’s top-25 scoring leaders, the options are there for UNC. Now, it’s a matter of those players stepping up in big moments.

“We have depth,” Davis said. “We’ve got guys that, given the opportunity, can step up and play. And today was Armando’s night.”

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