After spraining his ankle in UNC’s previous contest against Virginia, senior center Armando Bacot's availability against Louisville was in doubt.
Even he didn’t think he would play. The night before Saturday's game, Bacot said he texted his mom and told her as much.
Yet come Saturday afternoon, the preseason ACC Player of the Year gave trainers the nod that he was healthy enough to give it a go. In North Carolina's first road win of the season, an 80-59 triumph over the Cardinals, Bacot’s presence was critical in North Carolina overcoming an early Louisville storm.
In the postgame press conference, Hubert Davis said Bacot didn’t participate in North Carolina’s practices leading up to the game. When UNC’s star center told Davis he wanted to play at North Carolina’s pregame breakfast, the second-year head coach suggested that Bacot get through warmups first before making any definite calls.
“My preparation was that he and Pete (Nance) weren’t playing,” Davis said. “I had everything lined up in terms of what directions we needed to go — from the standpoint of putting Leaky (Black) at the five and going small.”
Before the game even began, Bacot’s surprise appearance was felt. During the starting lineup introductions, UNC’s center was welcomed with a parade of ‘boos’ due to his part in last season’s overtime win at the KFC Yum! Center.
“It was great getting booed by the fans,” Bacot said. “I had this game marked off all year, just kind of seeing what (Louisville fans’) response would be because of last year.”
Though Bacot trotted out with North Carolina’s quintet of starters, his shocking insertion into play didn’t equate to a return to normalcy for UNC.
Graduate forward Leaky Black took on the jump ball duties with Bacot opting to linger in the backcourt. Bacot’s first shot bounced off the back rim, and the Richmond, Va., native appeared to get little lift off his hobbled ankle. But the senior center’s physical problems stretched beyond just upward lift, as tangled footwork resulted in Bacot committing a carrying violation.
With Bacot struggling to find his footing, North Carolina's entire offense went stagnant and Louisville opened up an eight-point lead.
“I don’t know why we started off slow,” Davis said. “I don't know. We didn’t start the way that we wanted to but for the rest of the game I thought we played really well.”
With the Tar Heels in need of offensive production, Bacot began to find his groove. After securing his first made basket via a second-chance dunk, the All-ACC big man one-upped his act on the next possession, flushing a one-handed dunk over a nearby Cardinal.
With each passing minute of the first half, Bacot appeared to be in the mix of nearly every Tar Heel rebound or scoring play. At the 7:25 mark, his transition layup helped North Carolina take the lead, 20-19.
Bacot’s ankle no longer seemed to be an issue. The senior center secured a double-double in the first period en route to UNC extending its lead to 11 points at halftime.
Although Bacot didn't make a field goal in the second half, he said going through the game allowed him to strengthen his ankle even more. Many of his teammates also said his presence alone lifted their play to greater heights.
Junior forward Puff Johnson swished a pair of 3-pointers out of the break to temper a brief Cardinal run. Sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn tallied a career-high 14 points and provided serviceable defense on El Ellis, Louisville’s leading scorer.
Bacot knows he’s not 100 percent, and joked he’ll likely have “120 needles all throughout his body” before UNC’s next contest against Boston College. But it’s his consistent presence — illustrated by his team-high 14 points and 16 rebounds — that not only elevates Bacot’s production, but his teammates’ play as well.
“(Bacot playing) shows that he’s a leader,” Dunn said. “It shows that he wants to be out there with us and we respect that. When he does that, we all want to follow him.”
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