NEW ORLEANS – Armando Bacot kept battling, locking his jaw and gritting his way through a hobbling ankle injury for the chance to help North Carolina win a national championship.
He played through bumps and box-outs, ballscreens and blocked shots. At one point, he could only hop on one leg in a desperate attempt to get back downcourt on defense. And by the end of Monday night's 72-69 loss to Kansas in the NCAA title game, he couldn't navigate even a few stairs without help.
“We came this far and this was a huge goal for us was to just hang up a banner," Bacot said. “And we just really wanted to win. I really wouldn't let anything stop us from getting to that point.”
The 6-foot-10 junior had been the anchoring presence in the paint all season for North Carolina, providing low-post scoring to go with his relentless work on the boards that made him one of the nation’s most unstoppable rebounders. But after rolling his right ankle in Saturday's thrilling win against rival Duke in the national semifinals, Bacot gamely fought against Kansas' physical David McCormack but never looked like himself.
“I really couldn't, the whole game, get the push on anything on my post-ups, defensively, anything,” Bacot said. “It was just like I kind of was out there and it was just hard for me to really just stand my ground.”
Bacot finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes, turning in a gutsy performance despite it being apparent to everyone in the Superdome that he was limited. He struggled significantly after halftime with just three points and five rebounds while missing 10 of 13 shots for the game with nearly all his production coming the foul line.
“It was not just tonight,” first-year coach Hubert Davis said of Bacot’s effort, adding: “The effort that he displayed, he’s done it all year consistently. And that’s why he’s one of the better players in the country.”
Bacot's night ended when he drove on McCormack with the Tar Heels down 70-69 and his right ankle buckled as he tried to push off — the hardwood seeming to bow significantly as he planted — and he crumpled to the court.
He got up and started frantically hopping downcourt before the game was stopped with 38.5 seconds left, before ultimately being helped to the sideline.
“I thought I made a good move. I thought I really got the angle I wanted,” Bacot said. “I thought it would have been an easy basket. ... I really couldn’t put any weight down on my right leg.
"And right then and there, I probably knew I was done at that point.”
Bacot’s right ankle had been a subject of scrutiny ever since he stepped on teammate Leaky Black’s foot late in the Duke win on Saturday. Bacot returned and gutted that game out, then assured anyone who would listen that he would be ready for the title tilt against Kansas.
But the signs were there long before the game ever tipped off that there would be trouble, with Bacot moving gingerly in pregame warmups before leaving his teammates behind to go back to the locker room before returning a bit later.
Bacot estimated he spent about 15 of the previous 24 hours doing every possible treatment to get ready to play against the Jayhawks. But Bacot said he still “really couldn’t even jump" even after every effort.
“We just kept trying to take a crack at it. They didn’t give up," Bacot said of the training staff.
Bacot's interior presence had been critical in Davis' scheme that puts a premium on floor spacing to open room for outside-shooting teammates Caleb Love, R.J. Davis and Brady Manek.
But with Bacot struggling and no other player capable of replacing him inside, UNC shot just 31.5% and went 5 of 23 from 3-point range in a game that came down to the final play after the Tar Heels squandered a 16-point first-half lead.
Bacot's effort Monday night made him the first player to have six double-doubles in one tournament, but that didn't ease the sting of seeing the eighth-seeded Tar Heels' remarkable postseason push fall one win short of a national championship.
When the postgame news conference ended, Bacot slowly got up and headed back to the edge of the dais.
“Somebody help Armando,” Hubert Davis said.
With that, Bacot wrapped his right arm around team spokesman Matt Bowers — who had helped Bacot up the steps earlier — and his left arm around news conference moderator Mark Fratto, then descended those eight stairs to hobble into the offseason.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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