NEW ORLEANS — As over 70,000 spectators held their breath in anticipation, four exhausted bodies drenched in sweat and light blue cloth huddled over Armando Bacot writhing in pain on the Caesars Superdome floor.
With the scoreboard at 65-65 and the North Carolina junior forward unable to limp off the court on his own after stepping on the foot of Duke’s Paolo Banchero, the first-ever NCAA Tournament matchup between the two rivals finally seemed to hang in the balance.
Following a minute on the bench and the Blue Devils poised to make a run straight to the national title game, Bacot leapt onto the elevated sideline and prepared himself for one last push.
He had spent two years enduring tough losses and promising the Tar Heel fanbase that better days were ahead. So the final minutes of UNC’s 81-77 national semifinal win seemed destined to be his moment of redemption.
“I thought 100 percent I was out for the rest of the game, and then something hit me like ‘I’m in the greatest college basketball game of all time,'" Bacot said. "So I just had to thug it out.”
Just 28 days after the battle in Cameron Indoor Stadium seemed to be the last significant chapter between the Tar Heels and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the final five minutes of Saturday’s bout proved to be the ultimate encore.
After protecting the paint for the one minute Bacot was receiving medical treatment, his reentry stabilized the Tar Heel defense that had allowed the Blue Devils to score at will inside to the tune of 48 points in the paint. UNC had withstood Duke's chance to pull away, but each triple in the back and forth barrage dug a deeper pierce in the heart of each fanbase as the Blue Devils regained the lead.
And then, another obstacle interfered with their hopes. Bacot, in the midst of an 11-point, 21-rebound outing, fouled out with 46 seconds to play.
Despite losing its defensive anchor, UNC's offense made timely baskets and its defense made timely stops. After sophomore guard Caleb Love nailed a three to put his team up by four and knocked down free throws to put the game on ice, the Tar Heels no longer were solely reliant on the six-foot-10 forward that had propelled them all season.
Instead, the team worked in tandem.
“The last two and a half months, the togetherness of this team has been at an all-time high,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “We’re so connected on and off the court, and it doesn’t guarantee wins, but it does put you in a position to maybe do something special.”
Since before the season even began, Davis has emphasized that, together, the team would achieve greatness. He placed a picture of the Final Four venue in each player's locker, seemingly manifesting the ride his team would eventually embark on.
As many scoffed at the overzealousness of the first-year head coach, his players believed, even if the odds weren't always in their favor.
“He told us we were going to be in this position so we might as well just tell our parents to book their tickets to New Orleans,” sophomore guard RJ Davis. “So looking back on it, and now actually being in this position, is something that I’ll cherish forever.”
Less than three months ago, when the Tar Heels lost back-to-back road games by 20 points or more, the team had to claw its way up to simply enter the postseason conversation. The win in Durham gave the group national credibility, but acted as a footnote in a season filled with more disappointment than celebration.
But when the team flooded the court and mobbed the center of the floor after sending its archrival home, Bacot did so with a noticeable limp. Preserving his energy was a priority, as his next step is something that seemed unthinkable at many points in his career.
The Tar Heels — who had only one win of any significance just over a month ago — are now 40 minutes from their one shining moment.
“At some points, I don’t know if it was belief or if it was just us being delusional” Bacot said. “But at every point of the season we knew if we came together as a team then we could get to the championship, and that’s what we did.”
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