CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Midnight was approaching Tuesday when Virginia guard Reece Beekman and forward Ben Vander Plas sat down to field questions in an interview room at John Paul Jones Arena, after the 13th-ranked Cavaliers defeated North Carolina 65-58 in ACC basketball. Through the door and across the hallway outside, Armando Bacot leaned on crutches while sharing a postgame visit with a number of family members and friends, the pain on his face and in his movement making for a quiet gathering in a tunnel off the court.
Hurting and hobbled, it had become anything but a triumphant exit on the way to the team bus for the UNC big man from Richmond, Va., and another displeasing trip to his home state to digest — perhaps his final college game in the state of Virginia.
Bacot was forced to sit out last month at Virginia Tech due to a bruised right shoulder, looking on from the bench as the Tar Heels fell that day in their ACC opener, their fourth straight loss at the time. He went down hard just 78 seconds into Tuesday night’s game at UVa, an awkward landing between Beekman and Kadin Shedrick of the Cavaliers that left Bacot writhing and grabbing at his left ankle. He was helped to his feet and limped off, unable to return.
The injury robbed the Tar Heels of sizable production, the anchor in the post and bulldozer around the basket through which the best version of their offense runs. The 6-foot-11 Bacot arrived averaging 18.8 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, the ACC leader in both departments, and had delivered five straight 20-point games, a career-best stretch. In UNC’s two meetings with Virginia last season, Bacot supplied 19.5 points and 16.5 rebounds per game, and the Tar Heels won both matchups.
“I haven’t talked to him after the game,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said Tuesday night during his session with reporters. “I know he’s hurting pretty bad. I didn’t see the play. I just saw him on the ground, and he was in a lot of pain. I know that he’s really in a lot of pain, because in those situations throughout his career, he usually gets back out there on the floor.”
Davis said he got caught between “hoping and expecting” Bacot would return to the game: “Because when he was walking off the floor, he said, ‘Coach, I just need to tie my shoe and I’ll be back out there. ‘”
After suffering the injury at the 18:42 mark of the first half while battling on the offensive boards, Bacot limped off to the end of the UNC bench, where athletic trainer Doug Halverson checked him out. Soon after, Bacot was taken back to the Tar Heels’ locker room and had more tape applied to his left ankle. ESPN reported Bacot, away from the court, was trying to run in a hallway while his father encouraged and consoled him.
Davis said by halftime he had learned Bacot wouldn’t be able to resume playing in the game. He reappeared on the UNC bench at the 17:42 mark of the second half in warmup gear. The Tar Heels went from ahead by seven in the second half to down by 10 to within three points of the lead, before losing for the eighth straight time at UVa. UNC remained winless here in Charlottesville since February 2012.
Three days earlier in Chapel Hill, NC, Bacot collected 21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots during the Tar Heels’ defeat of Notre Dame. Then afterwards, he said he was trying to accommodate as many as 30 ticket requests for the Virginia game on Tuesday night. Charlottesville is about a 70-mile drive from his hometown of Richmond.
“It’s tough, it’s tough,” sidelined teammate Pete Nance said in the UNC locker room. “Obviously, I know he was really fired up for this game. Him going down … I thought he did a good job of kind of trying to put those emotions of getting injured aside and really helping guys out.”
The Tar Heels’ 58 points marked a season low, registering more than 23 points below their ACC-leading average. UNC dropped to 0-4 in road games this season, and Bacot has been beaten away from home. He injured his right ankle during the four-overtime marathon loss to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore. — the same ankle he hurt at the end of last season in the Final Four and again in the NCAA championship game — and then suffered the bruised right shoulder three nights later during the first three minutes of UNC’s loss at Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
“He was just supportive of us,” UNC guard RJ Davis said Tuesday night, when asked about Bacot’s mood after this latest ankle injury. “That’s Armando for you. But he was in good spirits. Just hope he has a good recovery for this upcoming weekend.”
The Tar Heels play Saturday afternoon at Louisville, the ACC’s last-place team. As RJ Davis spoke to reporters in the UNC locker room at Virginia, Bacot was seated on a training table but a few feet away. Halverson attended to him, gently working a compression sock over Bacot’s left foot and stretching it up to his lower leg, covering the swollen ankle in a sleeve of extra support.
Bacot gathered the crutches, lengthened to fit his giant frame, and hobbled out to find his family and friends.