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No. 9 UNC men's basketball drops to No. 5 UConn, 87-76, in physical contest

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UNC junior forward Harrison Ingram (55) dribbles the ball during the Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 game in Madison Square Garden against the University of Connecticut.

The No. 9 North Carolina men’s basketball team (7-2, 1-0 ACC) fell to defending national champion No 5. UConn (8-1, 0-0 BEC), 87-76, Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden. 

In the two opponents first contest since 2005, senior guard and New York native RJ Davis led the team in scoring, with 26 points. Graduate center Armando Bacot notched another double-double, with 13 points and 12 rebounds on the night. 

“We were upset that we lost, but it’s eight games in," head coach Hubert Davis said. "And so it’s encouraging, from my standpoint, how much we can get better.”

From the jump, the Tar Heels were hungry. First-year point guard Elliot Cadeau gained possession of the ball off a UConn turnover, and drove it straight into the basket to put the first two points on the scoreboard. On the ensuing possession, Bacot locked down the Husky offense, before positioning himself perfectly at the other end of the court to receive a pass from junior forward Harrison Ingram. Just like that, Bacot rose up and slammed the ball into the basket to award North Carolina an early 4-0 advantage

The Huskies woke up fast. UConn, which ranks top-5 in the nation in offensive efficiency, began to move the ball around the court and find openings off screens, allowing it to quickly close the deficit. 

By the midway point of the first half, the Huskies had pulled ahead, leading 16-23. The Tar Heels made an effort to rally back and regain their early energy, capitalizing off a 3-point jumper from Ingram and a fast-break pull up jumper from Davis to tie the game back up with just under eight minutes on the clock. 

In a similar story to the opening minutes, UConn was able to pick up steam, gaining momentum from a string of explosive plays to earn the biggest lead of the night — 10 points with 1:40 left in the half. Not going down easily, however, UNC clawed its way back into the game, cutting the gap to only five thanks to a back-to-back Bacot dunk and Ingram 3-pointer to close the period only trailing 44-39.

Despite a made layup by Bacot out of the gates, North Carolina quickly fell behind in the second half. The Huskies lit up from the perimeter, making four consecutive 3-point attempts to regain a double-digit lead.

Ingram backed up a concerted effort from the Tar Heels to find a response, notching two consecutive layups and a midrange jumper to keep the teams hopes of winning in The Garden alive. The effort proved worthwhile. 

With just over 12 minutes left on the clock, UNC found the spark of energy it needed in a five-point play from Davis that began with a made three and culminated in a layup off a stolen ball. Now, North Carolina only trailed by five once more.

“I love the fight," Davis said. "It just shows that when we hit adversity we’re gonna get up and overcome it somehow and someway.”

At the end of the day, though, it just wasn't enough. The Huskies extended the lead, never placing a foot wrong. In the dwindling minutes of the game the Tar Heels grew sloppy, allowing uncontested shots from UConn and not following through on easy second-chance points. 

In the final two minutes of the game, shots finally began to fall for North Carolina — but it was two little and too late. When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 87-76 in favor of UConn. 

“I thought we definitely fought," Bacot said. "I mean, in the second half I think the difference really was that they killed us on the offensive boards, they got a lot of second-chance opportunities and they were knocking down a lot of shots, especially in the beginning.”

The Tar Heels will next take the court to face off against No. 16 Kentucky as a part of the CBS Sports Classic in Atlanta. The game will tip off at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 16. 

@PeaceGwen

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Gwen Peace

Gwen Peace is the 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer. Gwen is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and peace, war and defense.