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Tar Heels dial in defensively, hand Wolfpack its first home loss of the season

UNC graduate forward/center Armando Bacot (5) guards N.C. State graduate guard DJ Burns Jr. at the Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2023 game in PNC Arena against N.C. State University. UNC won 67-54.

RALEIGH — Hubert Davis didn’t want UNC to double-team DJ Burns Jr. 

But after the first half on Wednesday, something needed to change. N.C. State was running its offense through its big man, who had converted three of his four “bully ball” looks — all against UNC graduate center Armando Bacot.

With each post-up opportunity, PNC Arena’s volume crescendoed, teetering on the brink of eruption.

“It was tough,” Bacot said. “Coming into an environment like this, every time he gets the ball, [the fans] are going crazy and I’m like, ‘Oh Lord.’”

Davis said he views guarding Burns as a “dilemma”, but after UNC began doubling the center, it’s safe to say he found his solution. The adjustment slowed Burns in the second half, effectively freezing an already cold N.C. State offense. In UNC’s gritty 67-54 win, the Wolfpack’s top three scorers in DJ Horne, Jayden Taylor and Burns were held to 23 combined points on 8-31 shooting.

"I told them after the game that they're not playing good defense,” Davis said of his team. “They're playing elite defense.”

It wasn’t always like that.

North Carolina had a shaky nonconference stretch that saw it surrender an average of almost 90 points in shootouts with Tennessee, UConn and Kentucky.

Granted, those are all top-6 teams in the country. But what about 83 points to unranked Villanova, or even a season-opening 70 points to Radford at home?

“Early on in the season, we had some struggles defensively as a team,” senior guard RJ Davis said. “But we had the potential.”

If UNC’s recent performance is any indication, that potential has come to fruition: for the first time in 25 years, North Carolina has won its third straight road game holding its opponents to under 60 points. Over that stretch, teams have shot a combined 8-68 — or 11.7 percent — from beyond the arc against the Tar Heels.

Wednesday was only the latest chapter of UNC’s defense lifting an uncharacteristically stagnant offense. Davis, the ACC’s leading scorer, had his second-worst shooting performance of the season in terms of percentage. Meanwhile, Bacot didn’t even reach double figures.

“Our defense has been huge for us,” RJ Davis said. “It’s been winning games for us.”

Hubert Davis said North Carolina tried not to give Burns a “steady diet” by mixing up coverages throughout the night. Rotation players like sophomore forward Jalen Washington — who Davis said is UNC’s best post defender — aggressively denied post-entry passes and forced a Burns turnover on a double-team alongside junior forward Harrison Ingram.

However, for the first 10 minutes of the game, Bacot was left to guard Burns one-on-one. So the N.C. State center feasted in the paint, unleashing a flurry of old-school, back-to-the-basket moves.

“He’s one of the only guys, really, in college who can actually move me and really touch me,” Bacot said. “So playing against him is great and I’ll see him once again. Maybe two times.”

Bacot even told Burns that he got bigger since their matchup. Conversely, UNC’s candid center had trimmed down, and his newfound struggles to contain Burns showed.

UNC graduate forward/center Armando Bacot (5) guards N.C. State graduate guard DJ Burns Jr. at the Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2023 game in PNC Arena against N.C. State University. UNC won 67-54.

But by the end of the night, it didn’t matter. And as much success as the Tar Heels have had on the road this season — winning three away games in the past week, as opposed to just four total last season — Bacot won’t miss playing in Wolfpack territory.

“I’m glad I got out with a win,” Bacot said with a smile. “I’m glad I don’t gotta come back. So it’s great.”

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.