What a night. What a win.
We could have gone in several directions with Player of the Game.
We could have gone with Brady Manek, who had 20 points (with five made 3’s!) and 11 rebounds while handling the toughest defensive assignment of the night, going head-to-head against Paolo Banchero most of the game.
We could have gone with RJ Davis, who took control of the game in the second half, knifing into the paint to either score or find players at the rim. He finished with 21 points and four assists.
We could have gone with Caleb Love, who shook off a rough first half and surged when Carolina needed a push to gain separation at “winning time.” Love finished the game with 22 points and five assists against only one turnover, and was crucially 12 for 12 from the FT line, helping UNC ice the game.
We even could have gone with Leaky Black, who held AJ Griffin to five points on 2-5 shooting in 34 minutes of game action (remember that Griffin torched the Tar Heels for 27 points in Chapel Hill earlier this season). Leaky also got some crucial buckets late in the second half when the Carolina was desperate to keep Duke from crawling back into the game.
All of these would have been acceptable choices.
But the winner has to be Armando Bacot.
Bacot opened the game with a bang, cutting to the basket on an inbounds play and dunking for the first basket. He was 4-4 from the floor and 2-2 from the free-throw line, finishing the first half with 10 points and three rebounds.
Unfortunately, he also picked up two fouls, one of the inexplicable variety, backing into an unseen (and airborne) Mark Williams for his second. Bacot only played 10 minutes in the first half, and in doing so, put the team into a spot of bother. Hubert Davis had to throw the kitchen sink defensively at the Blue Devils, trying combinations of Puff Johnson, Dontrez Styles, and Justin McCoy to weather the storm.
Eager to make amends, Bacot came into the second half shot out of a cannon. He scored 13 more points on 6-7 shooting. He was judicious with his challenges, letting lay-ups go that he couldn’t contest, knowing he had to stay on the court for offense. Bacot got more aggressive after the 10-minute mark, clawing at the ball handlers for two steals. He challenged shots at the rim, including a HUGE block after an RJ Davis turnover that helped keep it a three-possession game.
Bacot finished the game with the highest +/- rating of any player with +24. The Tar Heels were -11 without him on the floor.
Beyond the game itself, Bacot showed that he is the true leader of the team. During postgame interviews, he let everyone know that UNC was locked in and was not going to back down from the Duke challenge, even when the whole world, and especially the production folks at ESPN, thought it was a foregone conclusion:
Armando Bacot: “I’ve seen all the stuff on social media, so I knew I was going to come out here and kick ass.” pic.twitter.com/ubcYhqiA1m— Josh Graham (@JoshGrahamRadio) March 6, 2022
And immediately after the win, the biggest of his career, one that will make him a Carolina legend like the 2006 team that ruined JJ’s senior night, he embraced his new head coach, Hubert Davis. This is how much it meant to him:
Enjoy the moment Armando. Have the party Coach K thought he was getting.