By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — After two frustrating losses to ranked teams in Connecticut, Carolina’s Armando Bacot craved another chance to face a big-time program and prove that the Tar Heels were better than they showed against Tennessee.
Playing UNC Asheville two days later didn’t offer that opportunity, and looking ahead may have had something to do with the Tar Heels’ uneven performance in that 72–53 victory.
Going up against No. 24 Michigan before the biggest and most raucous Smith Center crowd in two seasons was just the setting the Tar Heels (5–2) needed to get things right in a 72–51 Big Ten/ACC Challenge victory.
The determination of UNC’s players and Coach Hubert Davis’ adjustments, such as double-teaming the post defensively after not doing that against Purdue or Tennessee, gave him his first signature victory.
“We’ve just been itching to play a top team and just show that we can play against those teams,” Bacot said. “We just knew we had to come out there and compete because, obviously, they’re a good team with a lot of talent. I feel like that’s what we did.”
There was still talk about UNC’s defense after the Michigan game; but it was eliciting smiles from Tar Heels fans instead of head-shakes.
There didn’t appear to be much joy on the faces of the Tar Heels in earlier games but it all came out against the Wolverines.
Davis said it was big for his players who might be tired of hearing about the moments he, Coach Sean May, Coach Jeff Lebo and Coach Pat Sullivan repeatedly talked about enjoying as Carolina players.
This was their night to create one for themselves.
“Our guys have had a desperation to have their own stories, their own testimonies, their own memories of playing in big games here, putting on that uniform and making big shots and big-time moments,” Davis said. “In the locker room, they were jumping around, they were hugging, they were smiling. I told him that tonight’s win was 100% them. And I appreciate it and I was thankful for them for giving me and the rest of the coaches just the opportunity to be in the front row just to be able to see it and experience it.”
Every player in the rotation looked motivated, passionate and played well. But the play of Bacot and Caleb Love reached another level as they were determined to put the struggles of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off behind them.
“I just needed to go out and just show that I’m the elite defender that I know I am,” said Bacot, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds and held Michigan center Hunter Dickinson to season-lows of four points, five rebounds and 40% shooting. Coming into the game, Dickinson was averaging 14.8 points and 8.2 rebounds and shooting 60.7%.
One of Bacot’s best moments came midway through the second half when Wolverines forward Brandon Johns Jr. made a spin move along the baseline to get past Bacot, only to have Bacot swat the ball away.
Bacot had played against Dickinson since seventh grade and knew he’d be the tough big man he could battle to show that his defensive lapses in earlier games weren’t going to define him.
“I know a lot of the stuff that he likes to do,” Bacot said. “I know when he catches on the right blocks, trying to get to that left-hand jump hook. It’s kind of like playing at the park when it’s playing against him because we’ve been playing against each other for so long.”
The double-teaming help from teammates also worked to neutralize Dickinson.
“Anytime that Hunter Dickinson caught the ball in a post, we double-teamed,” Davis said. “So, we wanted to get the ball out of his hands and our rotations were really good. It was hard for him to get into a rhythm.”
Bacot described the days after that loss to the Volunteers as hell. He said the game left a bad taste in his mouth. He knew the team was more talented than it was showing and that fans and coaches deserved more.
“So, we just practiced,” Bacot said. “I mean, it was tough. We just had to do some soul-searching. And we just had to figure out, do we really want to be a great team or a good team? I feel like we took a step in the right direction. We all were just pretty upset and pissed off about it. Just some of the things that were said about us as a team. We didn’t like it at all. We kind of channeled all that.”
After a discussion with his staff in the locker room at halftime — when Bacot, Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek combined for 13 points and UNC only led 29–27 — Davis decided that going inside frequently in the second half was the way to go.
“I looked at the coaches and I said, ‘we can score inside,’ ” Davis said. ” ‘We’re going inside to Armando and Dawson and Brady and I feel like we can be effective.’ And, as good a defenders as Dickinson is and the other bigs for Michigan, I just felt like that we had an advantage down low. So, we made an emphasis in the second half to really get the ball down low on the post and our big guys delivered.”
The trio combined for 21 points and two assists in the second half. Garcia finished with 14 points and Manek scored nine.
From sinking NBA-length 3-pointers and step-back jumpers to creating offense with his driving ability and playing good defense, Love had one of the best games of his career.
Love contributed 22 points, four assists and three steals while playing terrific defense on Michigan Eli Brooks. The Wolverines guard tied his season-low with 11 points after averaging a team-leading 15.7 entering the game.
Love said that the game went well “once we locked in on defense, and we just stuck to our plays on offense and just doing what Coach Davis tells us to do day in and day out. We’re just playing as a team, playing hard and playing together. We’ll be great.”
Davis said that Love showed why he’s a definitive first-round NBA draft pick.
“It wasn’t just his scoring,” Davis said. “It was his defense. It was his ability to get teammates open, his passing. Caleb played an all-around game.
“He can be dominant on both ends of the floor,” Davis said. “From an offensive standpoint, he’s gifted enough to be able to create his own shot and create a shot for his teammates at any given time. And he’s done such a good job this year of understanding when to shoot and when to create shots for his teammates.”
The Tar Heels will try to keep the momentum going at 3 p.m. Saturday at Georgia Tech (5–2) in their ACC opener (ESPN2).
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 2 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 13 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — No. 24 Michigan|
|5||Sunday, 3, ESPN2||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Elon|
|14||Tuesday, 7, ESPN2||Home||Furman|
|18||Saturday, 3, CBS||Las Vegas||Z — No. 5 UCLA|
|21||Tuesday, 7, ACCN||Home||Appalachian State|
|29||Wednesday, 7, ESPN2||Home||Virginia Tech|
|1||Saturday, noon, ACCN||Road||Boston College|
|5||Wednesday, 9, ESPN2||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||Saturday, 1, ESPN||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|31||Monday, 7, ESPN||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 1 Duke|
|8||Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 1 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball