Tar Heels’ Armando Bacot leaving a legacy in Chapel Hill after 162 games

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Hard to go out much better than that, huh?

A walk-off 3 … in a 33-point win … in your 162nd college basketball game … to win a share of your conference regular-season title.

No wonder Armando Bacot got a standing ovation when he checked out — for good — of his final home game at North Carolina.

“I’m just so thankful,” a teary-eyed Bacot said after the game. “I may not have been the best player that ever played here, may not have scored the most points — I did grab the most rebounds — may not have blocked the most shots, but in terms of players? Nobody has loved this school more than I have, and that’s something I can be proud of.”

It sounds borderline hyperbolic, but Bacot’s legacy will probably never be matched in Chapel Hill. Really. Think about all he’s seen, all he’s endured. Bacot was a pre-pandemic freshman on Roy Williams’ worst team. Then watched Williams, his Hall of Fame coach, abruptly retire after his sophomore season (on April Fools’ Day, no less). Stuck around as a junior, and was integral to UNC’s beating Duke — twice! — in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season, including Coach K’s final home game and in the programs’ only-ever NCAA Tournament meeting. Played in the freakin’ national championship game, even on basically one bum ankle. Then he was the face of arguably the most disappointing team of the modern era: when the Tar Heels became the first preseason No. 1 since the field expanded in 1985 to miss the tournament altogether. And now, this. A still-unfinished story.

It is … a lot.

“It’s just a really emotional night,” Hubert Davis said. “He’s more than just what he means to this team. It’s what he means to this program, this university, and this community.”

And that’s what makes Bacot unique. (Let’s avoid the past tense, made, until his playing days are officially over.) This was a five-star recruit, one who flirted with the NBA and the transfer portal in multiple offseasons … but who always stayed. Longer than anyone, him included, probably ever imagined. As he got older, he became “almost like the GM of our team,” according to junior Harrison Ingram; Bacot was the first person to direct-message Ingram — even before Davis formally reached out — when the former Stanford wing first went in the portal last summer. He’s become one of the national faces of name, image and likeness and regularly makes appearances around the Triangle to interact with fans. His social media is a nonstop UNC love fest.

Bacot has said a few times over his college career that he would “die” for this school.

“I thought he was trippin’ about that quote,” Ingram joked, “but now that I see how he acts for the school and how much it means to him? I think he was being for real.”

Which is why the final score Tuesday — UNC 84, Notre Dame 51 — could not matter less. It’s completely inconsequential, in the grand scheme of things.

It was about honoring North Carolina’s seniors, the ones responsible for multiple banners hanging in the Smith Center. Less so for walk-ons Rob Landry, Creighton Lebo and Duwe Farris, but still. Even Paxson Wojcik and Cormac Ryan, two super seniors playing their grad years in Chapel Hill, have made their contributions to this year’s ACC regular-season title team. (It’s at least a share right now, but becomes outright if the Tar Heels win at Duke on Saturday.) Then there’s R.J. Davis, the impending ACC Player of the Year, who was honored as a senior … but who technically still has his COVID-19 year of eligibility, if he so chooses to use it. Davis said Tuesday what he has over the last few weeks: that he hasn’t decided on his future yet, and won’t until the season ends.

Which leaves the lifer. The ultimate senior: Bacot.

Tuesday was his 162nd game as a Tar Heel, more than any player has ever suited up for their school in ACC history. (Kihei Clark’s record, from his five years at Virginia, lasted one season. Womp womp.) As Bacot said in his commemorative video, which played on the Smith Center giant video screens at the U12 timeout: “I feel like I’ve been here forever.” Sort of because, well, he has.

But in the process, Bacot has become a UNC legend. He’ll leave, at some point in the next five weeks, as the best rebounder in school history, at a place where Tyler Hansbrough and Antawn Jamison used to suit up. He’s top-three in program history in points scored, well within striking distance of second-place Phil Ford. He’s the program’s leader in career double-doubles (82), and is seventh all-time in NCAA history; two more, and he ties Ralph Sampson. Five more, and he ties Tim Duncan’s NCAA record. He’s the only player in NCAA Tournament history with six double-doubles in a single postseason, and his 31 total his junior season tied David Robinson’s single-season record.

We’re talking truly rarified air here.

Tuesday, then, was one final chance for North Carolina’s fans to appreciate all that — all Bacot has accomplished, but also all he’s been through — at home. In the town where he’s as popular as anyone. In the building where, in some form or fashion, his legacy deserves to be honored.

That Bacot’s last basket on Roy Williams Court is a nothing-but-net 3 — even Williams, next to the tunnel, had to laugh and shrug at that — will be a fun footnote. So will Bacot’s final stat line at home: 14 points, five rebounds, a block, an assist and three turnovers.

What will endure much more concretely will be the way UNC fans, and college basketball ones at large, remember the 23-year-old. Bacot said last season, before he opted to return for his fifth season, that he one day wanted to be considered for the school’s metaphorical sports Mount Rushmore.

So — his home career behind him, potential postseason immortality ahead — does Bacot feel like he accomplished that?

“At a school like this, I mean, it’s levels. When you talk about Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan, I mean, you got Lawrence Taylor, coach Williams, coach Smith, they’re probably in the VIP room in the back,” Bacot said. Pause.

Then that trademark toothy grin: “But I think,” he added, “I’m in that next room now. I think I’ve done good enough.”

(Photo of Hubert Davis and Armando Bacot: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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