CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In his bedroom early Saturday morning, shuffling between Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” Harrison Ingram imagined.
He couldn’t stop thinking about later that night: his first Duke versus North Carolina game. Ingram witnessed the rivalry in person back in high school — he was on his UNC visit in 2020 when Tre Jones and Wendell Moore hit buzzer-beaters for Duke — but actually playing in a game of this magnitude? He hadn’t yet in college, not through two seasons at Stanford, which is why he transferred to UNC last offseason. For moments like this. For the chance to impress on a national stage, with millions watching.
Back in his room, processing it all, Ingram took some practice shots against air, and one more thought came to his mind:
“This is gonna be one of my nights.”
Was it ever.
Because all Ingram did Saturday was have arguably his most complete game yet as a Tar Heel. In No. 3 UNC’s 93-84 win, Ingram had a season-high 21 points — including a career-best five 3s — in addition to 13 rebounds and a career-high-tying four steals. “I’d like that every game,” Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis joked afterward. “I mean, I would be OK with that.”
— UNC Tar Heels (@GoHeels) February 4, 2024
As he should, since Ingram’s success thus far has directly correlated to North Carolina’s as a team. After Saturday, UNC is 7-0 this season when Ingram has a double-double. His inside-out versatility gives opponents fits, how he can back smaller defenders down in the post or drive by slower ones from the perimeter. And in terms of energy, well, it’s rare to see a 6-foot-7, 235-pound dude diving on the floor quite as often as he does.
“He was relentless. Just the loose balls that I’m talking about, he got a lot of them,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “I don’t know how many, but he got a lot.”
No single play exemplified that better than one second-half possession with about six minutes left, after Duke had cut a one-time 15-point lead to 10. Cormac Ryan missed a runner from the left, and Ingram tried tapping the offensive rebound back out to his teammates but instead threw it off Tyrese Proctor. Ingram didn’t hesitate; he dove, rolled over at the elbow and tossed a prayer of a pass back to the perimeter, which Elliot Cadeau saved from going over half court. Seconds later, the ball swung back around to Ryan in the far corner, and he drained a corner 3 that put UNC back up 13.
On a night when Duke sold out to stop RJ Davis, the ACC’s leading scorer — Proctor face-guarded Davis for most of the night, holding him to just 4 points at halftime — it was instead Ingram who made the Blue Devils pay.
But not just Ingram.
That, if anything, was the takeaway from the Tar Heels’ rivalry victory Saturday. Sure, RJ Davis finished with 17 points, but quietly; he shot just 5-of-14, and all five of his free throws came in the last 1:25 of the game, after the result was already decided. Instead, everyone else stepped up for UNC, rather than simply relying on Davis’ superhuman scoring efforts.
Ingram was a huge piece of that. But what about Armando Bacot? The super-senior center entered Saturday having scored just single digits in three consecutive games, the first time that had happened since his freshman season. Bacot has still been valuable over that stretch, particularly as a screen-setter and defender, but even he told the media this week that he felt he had shifted into a different role. Hubert Davis heard that and invited him to his office Thursday to discuss things.
Or, more specifically, to discuss how Bacot had that idea all wrong.
“I told him, ‘I’ve never told you that,’” Hubert Davis said. “‘For us to be the best team that we can be, we need you being a dude.’”
Davis and Bacot agreed: UNC needed to recommit to feeding the big man in the post.
Guess what the Tar Heels did on their first offensive possession Saturday?
Bacot went early and often at Kyle Filipowski — who was picked as the ACC preseason player of the year over him back in October, something Bacot hasn’t forgotten — and didn’t relent. If Bacot’s conversation Thursday with his head coach got him going, all the social media hate he read online this week got him where he needed to be mentally. “I don’t miss anything. I look at that stuff,” Bacot acknowledged. “I laugh because people think they’ve got an idea on who we are, what we’re doing … but people have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. So it’s just one of those things where it’s proving everybody wrong.” Leading all scorers at halftime en route to a season-high-tying 25 points ain’t a bad way to do that.
Bacot’s father, Armando Sr., said the two spoke for a half-hour earlier Saturday, and his son told him just the same.
“He said he wanted this more than anything,” Armando Sr. said. “I said, ‘What about the one on your birthday (in March)?’ He said, ‘We’ll deal with that one when it gets here.’”
With 4:49 left and UNC leading by 8, Bacot spun on Filipowski in the post and finished an and-1 layup. After the whistle blew, he bent over and held his hand parallel to the hardwood.
“Filipowski, he’s a great player,” Bacot said. “But at the end of the day, I feel like the ACC runs through me.”
Beyond Bacot and Ingram, though, UNC got contributions down the depth chart. Seth Trimble not only held Duke’s sharpshooting guards — who rank top-20 nationally in 3-point percentage — in check but also contributed 10 points, including several nice interior finishes. Ryan had two 3s, two assists and two steals. Cadeau didn’t shoot well, making only one of his nine attempts, but his outlet passes in transition were key to the Tar Heels’ lightning-quick pace.
It was, in every sense of the phrase, a team victory.
And that’s a scary proposition for the rest of the country.
📍 CHAPEL THRILL, NORTH CAROLINA pic.twitter.com/DpJ4WPcrr9
— UNC Tar Heels (@GoHeels) February 4, 2024
At times this season, the Tar Heels have been overly reliant on Davis and his heroics to save them. More recently, it’s been elite defense — UNC is fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom — giving North Carolina an edge. But a complementary game like this, when an opponent sold out to stop Davis and it did not matter, at least not in the grand scheme of the game? It’s been a while … if it’s happened at all.
But that’s what has UNC firmly atop the ACC standings and very much in the thick of the national title conversation. “At the end of the day, if RJ had 0 and Armando had 90 points, or vice versa, I don’t really think they care,” Hubert Davis said. “I really think this group celebrates the success of their teammates. Like, they celebrate it more than their success.” So, yes, Saturday was for Ingram, for Bacot, for Trimble. Maybe the next game will be Ryan’s, or Cadeau’s, or Jalen Washington’s. Does it matter, though? In North Carolina’s locker room, not really. Not at all. So long as the team walks off the court with a dub, all is well.
North Carolina won’t play as complete a game every night because no team in the nation can. It will have off-shooting nights — from RJ Davis or the collective — or games when its defense isn’t as stingy as normal. It will happen. But what UNC proved Saturday is that it can overcome any such situation that comes its way, even a top-10 rival with a pointed game plan.
Ingram was right. This was one of his nights. But you can say the same about his team as a whole.
“Man, I’ve been telling everybody,” Armando Sr. said. “Get your tickets for the Final Four.”
(Photo of Armando Bacot: Bob Donnan / USA Today)