El baloncesto de la UNC Armando Bacot sale del mal contra Duke

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Since he became North Carolina’s head basketball coach almost three years ago, Hubert Davis has required his players to visit his office at least once a week during the season. It’s a firm commitment and if there’s one rule about these visits, aside from the mandatory attendance, it’s that they’re never really ever supposed to be about basketball.

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They are, instead, supposed to be about life. How his players are doing and what they’re going through. Sometimes the conversations are more serious; sometimes lighter. But there’s that rule, almost always: No basketball talk. There’s enough of that, after all, during practices or film sessions or team meetings.

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“We’ve got to talk about school,” Davis said, “whatever they’re watching on Netflix, what’s their favorite thing they like to eat. But I call the guys into the office all the time.”

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That Davis practices this weekly ritual with his players is not new, or revelatory. He has spoken about it openly. But it came up again Saturday night, after the Tar Heels’ 93-84 victory over Duke. Davis found himself talking about his weekly meetings because one of them, as he might’ve hoped, proved especially instrumental in his team’s performance against the Blue Devils.

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Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte hace un mate en un contraataque para asegurar la victoria de los Tar Heels por 93-84 con diez segundos por jugar contra Duke el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024 en el Dean E. Smith Center en Chapel Hill. NC Bacot lideró todas las puntuaciones con 25 puntos.
Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte hace un mate en un contraataque para asegurar la victoria de los Tar Heels por 93-84 con diez segundos por jugar contra Duke el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024 en el Dean E. Smith Center en Chapel Hill. NC Bacot lideró todas las puntuaciones con 25 puntos. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

It was the meeting he shared, on Thursday, with Armando Bacot, the fifth-year senior forward whose college years have spanned the deepest emotional depths and, at times, the rarest of peaks. Lately, at least individually, it had been more despair than anything for Bacot, who has labored to discover the form that made him the ACC Preseason Player of the Year last year, and a preseason first-team selection this year.

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Well, at least he was laboring to discover that form.

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Bacot finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds Saturday and was often the best player on the court, for either team. Without debate, he was the most productive: active and demanding on the interior on offense; enough of a defensive presence to be a pest on that end of the court; a lead-by-example type who played with a sense of engagement and want-to.

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He was, in short, the force UNC expected him to be — the one it needs him to be, if the Tar Heels are to realize their considerable potential. To this point, they’ve been pretty good as it is without the kind of effort Bacot delivered against Duke, or even without anything close to that kind of effort. The relative lack of production, as measured by a box score, had become a concern.

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More so, though, were those intangible qualities that are more difficult to quantify. Effort. Desire.

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Bacot had heard the criticism. Or read it. Or both, more accurately.

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Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte dispara mientras Kyle Filipowski (30) de Duke defiende durante la primera mitad del juego de Duke contra la UNC en el Smith Center en Chapel Hill, Carolina del Norte, el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024.
Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte dispara mientras Kyle Filipowski (30) de Duke defiende durante la primera mitad del juego de Duke contra la UNC en el Smith Center en Chapel Hill, Carolina del Norte, el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

When he met with reporters Saturday night, he spoke like a man who’d been taking notes and making a list of those who’d wronged him, or spoken ill of him. Some athletes insist — truthfully or not — that they never read anything about themselves; that they ignore social media and tune out negativity. Then there was Bacot on Saturday night, injecting the hate right into his pregame meal; feasting on it and growing stronger in the process.

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At least for a night.

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“I knew we couldn’t lose this game,” he said, and that was part of his motivation, too — that this was his final home game against Duke. “I wouldn’t allow us to lose this game.”

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Then he got into it: “I see what everybody says. I told you — I miss nothing. And just going into this game, it was just a different fire. And really I came in just pissed off, just seeing some of the things people say. And I just love the university so much, and I think (when) I see stuff, people questioning me and how much I really want it and stuff like that — I took that personally.”

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One can imagine Bacot scrolling his phone, filing away the hate tweets and the insults, a fair amount of them undoubtedly from his own fans. Saturday night was arguably his best game of the season, and certainly his best game on this sort of stage, but it was also an anomaly. He entered Saturday without breaking double figures in scoring in three consecutive games.

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He hadn’t scored 20 since a Nov. 29 victory against Tennessee. He hadn’t turned in a double-double — and he’s had more of those than anyone in school history and all but two players in ACC history — in three weeks. And sometimes, fair or not, it has looked as if Bacot is playing at three-fourths speed; as if he’s missing a step, or some energy.

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Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte se abre camino hacia la canasta contra Kyle Filipowski (30) de Duke en la segunda mitad el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024 en el Centro Dean E. Smith en Chapel Hill, Carolina del Norte. Bacot lideró todos los puntajes con 25 puntos en la victoria de los Tar Heels por 93-84.
Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte se abre camino hacia la canasta contra Kyle Filipowski (30) de Duke en la segunda mitad el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024 en el Centro Dean E. Smith en Chapel Hill, Carolina del Norte. Bacot lideró todos los puntajes con 25 puntos en la victoria de los Tar Heels por 93-84. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Saturday, then, was a flash of the Bacot of old. The one who helped lead UNC on an improbable run to the Final Four in 2022; the one who was instrumental in ending Mike Krzyzewski’s career with a loss, and spoiling his final home game at Duke, too. There was some symmetry, then, in Bacot finding himself all this time later during another game against Duke.

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And not coincidentally, it happened two days after that meeting with Davis. It was to be their usual weekly check-in where, again, the first and maybe the only rule is always the same: No basketball talk. This week, though, it was unavoidable. Bacot was in a slump. Davis was concerned about the production, yes, but also some things he’d heard that troubled him.

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Word had gotten back to Davis that Bacot had vocalized an attitude of deference. That he’d said this wasn’t his team, despite his years and experience, and that his role had changed. When Davis and Bacot met Thursday, then, there could be no talk of Netflix or food. Davis suddenly had to make something clear. He reassured Bacot that, no, his role hadn’t changed.

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“For us to be the best team that we can be,” Davis said, reciting what he’d told Bacot, “we need you being a dude. So we need RJ (Davis) scoring 20, we need you getting 20 and 20 rebounds.”

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Well, Saturday was a start, then.

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UNC went to Bacot on its first possession, in a tone-setting display of intentionality that was also a result of that meeting. For about an hour Thursday, after Davis had clarified his need for Bacot to achieve regular “dude” status, the two talked strategy, and about what Bacot needed to be more effective. Davis listened, tweaked his offense and employed a new wrinkle or two against Duke.

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The result is what everybody saw Saturday night: Bacot, reimagined and reinvigorated. And just in time for Duke, and February, the build-up toward the most important part of the season. This was a welcome change for the Tar Heels, who’d still managed to start 9-0 in the ACC and climb into the top 5 of the national rankings without Bacot’s best. And now?

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Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte grita mientras se acaba el tiempo en la victoria de la UNC por 93-84 sobre Duke en el Smith Center en Chapel Hill, Carolina del Norte, el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024.
Armando Bacot (5) de Carolina del Norte grita mientras se acaba el tiempo en la victoria de la UNC por 93-84 sobre Duke en el Smith Center en Chapel Hill, Carolina del Norte, el sábado 3 de febrero de 2024. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

“He was in a different mode,” said Cormac Ryan, UNC’s senior guard, and he repeated himself: “A different mode. It starts and ends with Armando.”

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In the final seconds Saturday night, with a delirious home crowd long satisfied if not a bit hoarse, Bacot broke away for an emphatic dunk that served as an exclamation. He scored UNC’s first points and its last and walked off the court in an embrace with Hubert Davis, who hugged Bacot and tried to kiss his cheek but couldn’t reach, and instead quickly planted one on his neck.

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Davis said he told Bacot that he loved him; that he was proud. He thought about their meeting days earlier. The basketball talk had been OK, after all, since in this context it was more about life, anyway.

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“It’s really important for me for Armando to finish out his career the right way,” Davis said, and there was a hint of emotion in his voice and his eyes.

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It’s difficult to know, now, what the “right way” would entail. An ACC championship? A Final Four? Winning the whole thing? That could be defined later.

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For now, Saturday night felt like a turning point. Like Bacot found a way to be his old self again.

Esta historia fue publicada originalmente. 4 de febrero de 2024, 6:30 a.m.

Andrew Carter pasó 10 años cubriendo los principales deportes universitarios, seis de ellos cubriendo la Universidad de Carolina del Norte para The News & Observer y The Charlotte Observer. Ahora es miembro del equipo estatal de reportajes empresariales y de investigación de The N&O’s y Observer. Asistió a NC State y creció en Raleigh soñando con convertirse en periodista.



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