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After an injury, Armando Bacot is not deterred by the speed of execution

NEW ORLEANS — First, Armando Bacot landed his front on the court and forced himself onto his back. The pain in his right ankle was so bad he was writhing on the Superdome floor, clutching his blue Carolina jersey between his teeth.

Caleb Love, Bacot’s teammate, stared at Bacot’s ankle as other Tar Heels formed a circle around Bacot. He got up then, but he couldn’t put weight on his ankle after he landed awkwardly on the foot of North Carolina forward Leaky Black while trying to block Duke’s Paolo Banchero in an attempt to lay-up.

The roar in the arena that had previously reached seemingly unheard of levels of volume even for a legendary North Carolina-Duke game had died down to muffled whispers, as fans collectively turned to each other and asked “What are they going to do now?”

Bacot, a big, 6-foot-10 physique who dominates around the rim, was one of the lifelines in the eighth-seeded Tar Heels tournament deep run. After beating Duke on Saturday, they will face No. 1 seed Kansas on Monday night in the Men’s Division I Championship Game.

Bacot had one of the best rebounding seasons ever, recording at least 15 rebounds in 13 games. He hit a pair of free throws in overtime to help defeat defending champion Baylor in the second round. Against UCLA in the Round of 16, he recovered a loose ball before it bounced out of bounds and threw it into play to save possession — and the Tar Heels’ season.

Against Duke, Bacot had demolished the Blue Devils at the low post, using all of his 240 pounds to push defenders against him for powerful rebounds and buckets to the edge. But it’s been the Tar Heels’ MO all season.

“First and foremost, we want to get the ball to Armando, plain and simple, period,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “We want him to dominate low in the post.”

But on Saturday, barely able to support the weight of his body on his right ankle as he limped off the pitch, Bacot appeared to be done for the night – and possibly the season. There were less than five minutes left and Bacot had already grabbed over 15 rebounds in a draw where every possession could have been the difference between a win or a loss.

“Something just hit my mind, and I thought, ‘I’m playing in the greatest college basketball game ever,'” Bacot told reporters after the game, at which he came back and finished with 11 points and 21 rebounds. “No chance I was sitting outside.”

Davis suggested Bacot would play Monday night’s championship game by any means necessary.

“He’ll play. Even if he stays there, he’s going to play,” Davis said, perhaps only half-joking. “We’re going to cheat Kansas. He’s just going to sit there in the middle of the lane.

Davis told reporters X-rays of Bacot, which he received immediately after the game, did not show a fracture. Bacot worked on the ankle for about two hours on Saturday night, rehabilitated it in the pool on Sunday morning and had a compression sleeve on it to make sure it’s as ready as possible for Monday’s game, which , according to Davis, could be boiled down to the team’s great team. the advantage.

“If I don’t play, who knows what McCormack can do,” Bacot said, referring to Kansas forward David McCormack, who had 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting Saturday in the 81-65 win. of the Jayhawks on Villanova.

Kansas had faced an under-completed Villanova team, which was evident in the Jayhawks’ dominating semifinal win.

Justin Moore, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer and top defenseman, tore his right Achilles tendon in the final minutes of Villanova’s win over Houston in the regional semifinals, and was a substitute against Kansas. Easier said than done.

Villanova missed Moore’s leadership in defense as much as he missed his scoring and his ability to take some of the offensive pressure from point guard Collin Gillespie.

In his return to Saturday’s game against Duke, Bacot limped down the field, favoring his right ankle while not quite being able to get the same lift he’s used to when shooting rebounds. . But when asked after the game how he was feeling, Bacot laughed and said, “I feel amazing. I feel good. Better than ever.”

It’s not uncommon for players to struggle with lingering injuries this late into a season, especially those who constantly come up against tall opponents and crash to the ground multiple times per game. Davis said he doesn’t think there’s a player “who isn’t a little hurt”, and Bacot, who has been so essential in getting his team to this point, still expects to make an impact in Monday’s league game, in a sense. or another.

“If I just have to go out there and get a few rebounds and wall off,” Bacot said, “make a few fouls or whatever, that’s what I’ll do.”

During the 1994-95 season, UCLA goaltender Tyus Edney played a crucial role in the Bruins’ title chase. Against Missouri in the second round, Edney drove down the field and hit the winning shot to keep the Bruins’ season alive. But he injured his wrist in the final against Arkansas and only played three minutes.

Bacot, however, said there was no chance he would miss the biggest game of the season, not after the Tar Heels went 14-19 in his first year, were knocked out of the tournament’s first round. NCAA by Wisconsin in its second season and then went through the tournament this year after many thought they were too mediocre to get that far.

“My right leg will have to be cut so I don’t play,” he said.

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