The atmosphere for this neutral court, spotlight event felt slightly different than last week.
The competition was still fierce, but the energy was at a high level. Last night in the Spectrum Center it was larger and louder than the typical partisan crowds in Charlotte or Greensboro during the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
This was a critical game for the North Carolina Tar Heels, and the crowd reflected that. Country music superstar and UNC superfan Eric Church sat beside the man himself during that game. One of Michael Jordan’s drivers, NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, was cheering in his Carolina Blue. And Tar Heel standout Tre Boston took the night off from the ACC Network to be a fan. He especially liked that Pete Nance dunk.
The Tar Heel faithful, famous and otherwise, showed up in Charlotte. With the primetime game in front of a big crowd, UNC fought back from a slow start to win.
Although not a perfect game, especially with turnovers and free throws, there was a lot of good from this Carolina team. Here are a few things learned from the 80-76 victory over Michigan.
This is Armando Bacot
It is a shame that UNC’s next game is nine days away. Armando Bacot is on a hot streak and who wants that to end?
Bacot’s dominance inside has been the difference-maker against these two Big Ten opponents.
He followed up his 28 points and 15 rebounds versus Ohio State with a 26-point, five-rebound performance against Michigan.
When the offense flowed through Bacot, there was a noticeable difference in the outcomes. A double team on him allowed for kickouts, and one-on-one defense led to Bacot shooting 11 of 15 from the floor.
Here’s another example of the importance of Bacot last night. With 6:46 left in the game, Bacot was charged with his fourth personal foul. At that juncture, Carolina was up 66-59.
UNC extended the lead to 69-60 a minute later, but by the time head coach Hubert Davis called a timeout at the 3:25 mark, the Carolina lead was just three points.
Bacot reentered the game, Leaky Black forced a turnover, and guess who scored the next points after that timeout?
Michigan kept fighting and were knocking at the door, but eventually fell short.
Bacot’s defensive efforts cannot be overlooked in this game. Hunter Dickinson, the 7’-1” junior who was averaging over 19 points a game for Michigan was stifled by Bacot. He managed just nine points and lost his composure several times during the game.
Let’s hope that the early season struggles and injuries are a thing of the past and Bacot is just starting to hit his stride.
Transition Game and Attacking the Basket
During that four-game losing streak, shot selection was a frustration for Tar Heel fans. UNC seemed to settle for jump shots without any real attempt at moving the ball.
For a good portion of the game last night, especially during their 15-2 run to close the first half, the Tar Heels looked great in transition.
Carolina finished with 19 transition points, the most since their second game of the season against College of Charleston. During this win streak, the previous high was 17 fast break points versus Georgia Tech.
From the eye test, UNC did a much better job attacking the basket as well. There were some misses from point-blank range that they have to convert, but Carolina finished with 40 points in the paint.
With their 44 inside points versus Ohio State, this is the first time the Tar Heels finished with back-to-back 40+ points in the paint this season. Their high water mark is 50 versus College of Charleston.
The pro-style may be the scheme, but these two Carolina basketball staples were essential to victory.
Tough Lil’ Nuts
The melee at the 6:53 mark of the first half ignited the Tar Heels. Down 26-22, Carolina went on a run to enter the locker room with a 41-34 lead. When UNC took the lead with 3:31 left in the first, they never relinquished it.
Toughness, whether mental or on the defensive side of the ball, has been a question mark for this team early in the season.
Hostile Assembly Hall in Bloomington got the best of Carolina and was a letdown for this team. Cassell Coliseum is always a tough place for UNC, especially when it seems as though it is always a capacity crowd. The Tar Heels struggled early but found some resolve in the closing minutes.
Since that time, Davis has explicitly challenged his team to be tougher. It certainly seemed as though he challenged his team from the sidelines after the shenanigans in the first half.
And the Tar Heels responded.
Gone is the nonconference schedule. The game versus Pitt starts the ACC slate in earnest. Let’s see the real toughness of this Tar Heel team.