By R.L. Bynum
PHILADELPHIA — At the start of the season, a photo of the Superdome was put on the locker of each Carolina player to remind them of the end goal — a trip to the Final Four.
After two difficult seasons and a lot of frustrations, most college basketball observers saw that as an unrealistic, lofty goal at the time.
Throughout the ups and downs when many fans and the media gave up on the Tar Heels, junior center Armando Bacot said that the team stayed focused and believed it was possible.
“I think that’s more the crazy part that I actually believed, even through all the struggles, that we would get to this point. And I’m just so glad,” Bacot said Saturday.
No. 8-seed UNC (27–9) faces No. 15-seed St. Peter’s (22–11) at around 4:50 p.m. Sunday (about 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 2:20 p.m. Midwest Regional final between No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 10 Miami on CBS) at the Wells Fargo Center with the reward of a trip to the stadium that’s been a visual motivator.
It’s a special place in Carolina basketball lore since the Tar Heels won national championships there in 1982 and 1993.
“We had a picture on all of our lockers, and that was one of the main goals,” Bacot said. “If you would have told me back then we would have made it this far, I probably would have believed.”
When Bacot announced that he would return for his junior season, he talked about wanting to finally win something and leave a legacy. A school single-season-record 28 double-doubles later, along with a historic win at Duke to ruin Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game and a regional final ahead, he’s done just that no matter what happens Sunday.
Bacot insists that the team’s confidence that it could make it to New Orleans never wavered. But they realized that a different approach was needed if that was going to happen after the home loss to Pittsburgh.
Bacot, RJ Davis and Brady Manek all said Saturday that was the turning point of the season.
“I felt like in a lot of games we would play and we would get down,” Bacot said. “It felt like we were kind of hanging our heads on getting to this part of the season. We didn’t realize that you’ve got to win games early on in the season too to get to this point. I feel like now we’re playing with that we-don’t-want-to-come-home mentality and I feel like that’s making a huge difference for us.”
Carolina has tried to block out what Coach Hubert Davis calls “the outside noise,” but it was hard to ignore. That’s particularly true when a former UNC player, Pittsburgh assistant coach Jason Capel, could be heard calling the Tar Heels soft when he was walking off the court after the Panthers’ win in the Smith Center.
“Yeah, we heard all that,” Bacot said. “I think it pissed all of us off. It was a lot of moments where we heard national media … some of these guys say these things about us. I’m just glad that it’s come at this point. Now all the teams that were so tough? Now they’re at home.”
Bacot said that he never thought toughness was the issue for the Tar Heels but rather execution.
“It was just more of a thing just trying to figure out, I think, just us playing together,” Bacot said. “A lot of the times, it wasn’t so much a toughness [issue].
“But, in those tough games when we were getting blown out, it was a lot of us personally not guarding our man and not playing a team defense,” he said. “It was more of that than a toughness thing. And I knew we had a tough group of guys. Even when we’re down in those games, even when we lost, the next day, we always felt like we could beat any team.”
Bacot said the game he thought showed that the Tar Heels had turned the corner was the 65–57 road victory over Virginia Tech on Feb. 19.
“I think we all, just as a team, played great offensively and we kind of just trusted each other in big moments,” he said.
During much of the ACC season, teams could put all of their defensive focus on Bacot, but that’s changed with guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis as well as big man Manek becoming threats to put up big scoring games.
“Just taking a load off me, it’s been great and just seeing those guys show all the great things that they can do,” Bacot said. “It makes my life a lot easier and it makes guarding us even harder. Just the thought of one player might play bad and somebody else will pick up the slack. It’s been great.”
Not so great on Friday night was the lower-back pain that he felt early in the 73–66 victory over UCLA that he hadn’t noticed during warmups.
“As soon as I got out there, the first four minutes, my back just got tight on me. It just kind of affected me all game, honestly,” Bacot said. He said that when he was taken out in the first half, it was a combination of Coach Davis’ rotation and the back issue.
“I don’t think it really hindered my play too much,” said Bacot, who said that he felt fine when he was running but got treatment on the bench during the game. “It was just when I was walking and sitting down, that’s when it really affected me.”
Bacot, who said the issues with the thumb on his shooting hand are over, is ready to add to his legacy and the legacy of the team on Sunday against the surprising Peacocks.
At Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
Sunday’s regional final
No. 8 North Carolina (27–9) vs. No. 15 St. Peter’s (22–11), about 30 minutes after Kansas-Miami game, CBS
At AT&T Center, San Antonio
Saturday’s regional final
No. 2 Villanova 50, No. 5 Houston 44
At United Center, Chicago
Sunday’s regional final
No. 1 Kansas (31–6) vs. No. 10 Miami (26–10), 2:20 p.m., CBS
At Chase Center, San Francisco
Saturday’s regional final
No. 2 Duke 78, No. 4 Arkansas 69
At Superdome, New Orleans
Saturday, April 2 national semifinals
No. 2 Duke (32–6) vs. No. 8 North Carolina or No. 15 St. Peter’s
No. 2 Villanova (30–7) vs. No. 1 Kansas or No. 10 Miami
Monday, April 4 final
Semifinal winners, TBA
time, day, 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. 10 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 5 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1–0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2 ACC||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2 ACC||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3 ACC||Las Vegas||Z — No. 7 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3 ACC||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||74–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACC||Home||Virginia|
|15||88–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACC||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||85–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACC||Road||Miami|
|22||98–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACC||Road||Wake Forest|
|24||78–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACC||Home||Virginia Tech|
|26||58–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACC||Home||Boston College|
|29||100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACC||Home||N.C. State|
|February (7–2, 7–2 ACC)|
|1||90–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACC||Road||Louisville|
|5||87–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACC||Home||No. 9 Duke|
|8||79–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACC||Road||Clemson|
|12||94–74 win, 18–7, 10–4 ACC||Home||Florida State|
|16||76–67 loss, 18–8, 10–5 ACC||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||65–57 win, 19–8, 11–5 ACC||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||70–63 win, 20–8, 12–5 ACC||Home||Louisville|
|26||84–74 win, 21–8, 13–5 ACC||Road||N.C. State|
|28||88–79 OT win, 22–8, 14–5 ACC||Home||Syracuse|
|5||94–81 win, 23–8, 15–5 ACC||Road||No. 9 Duke|
|— ACC Tournament —|
|10||63–43 win, 24–8||Brooklyn||Virginia|
|11||72–59 loss, 24–9||Brooklyn||Virginia Tech|
|— NCAA tournament —|
|17||95–63 win, 25–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Marquette|
|19||93–86 OT win, 26–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Baylor|
|25||71–66 win, 27–9||Philadelphia||No. 11 UCLA|
|27||About 4:50 Sunday, CBS||Philadelphia||St. Peter’s|
Photo via @UNC_Basketball