NEW ORLEANS — First, Armando Bacot laid his forehead on the court and forced himself onto his back. The pain in his right ankle was so bad that he writhed on the Superdome floor, clenching his blue Carolina jersey between his teeth.
Caleb Love, Bacot’s teammate, just stared down at Bacot’s ankle as other Tar Heels formed a circle around Bacot. He had by then gotten to his feet, but he could not put any weight on the ankle after awkwardly landing on North Carolina forward Leaky Black’s foot while trying to block Duke’s Paolo Banchero on a layup attempt.
The roar in the arena, who had previously reached seemingly unheard-of levels of loudness, even for a fabled North Carolina-Duke matchup, had quieted to muffled murmurs, as if fans were collectively turning to each other and asking, “What are they going to do now?”
Bacot, a physical 6-foot-10 big who dominates around the rim, has been one of the lifelines of the eighth-seeded Tar Heels’ deep tournament run, which, with a victory over Duke Saturday, will continue to the Division I championship game, where they’ll face No. 1-seeded Kansas on Monday night.
Bacot has had one of the best rebounding seasons ever, recording at least 15 rebounds in 13 games. He hit a pair of go-ahead free throws in overtime to help vanquish No. 1-seeded Baylor, the defending champion, in the second round. Against U.C.L.A. in the round of 16, he corralled a loose ball before it bounced out of bounds and threw it in play to save the possession — and the Tar Heels’ season.
Against Duke on Saturday, Bacot had been demolishing the Blue Devils in the low post, using all of his 240 pounds to push defenders off him for rebounds and forceful buckets at the rim. But that’s been the Tar Heels’ M.O. all season.
“First and foremost, we want to feed the ball down to Armando, plain and simple, period, the end,” North Carolina Coach Hubert Davis said. “We want him to dominate down low in the post.”
But on Saturday, barely able to stand the weight of his body on his right ankle as he limped off the court, Bacot looked to be done for the night — and possibly the season. There were less than five minutes left, and Bacot had already pulled in more than 15 rebounds in a tie game in which every possession could have made the difference between a win or a loss.
“Something just hit me in my mind, and I’m like, ‘I’m playing in the greatest college basketball game of all time,’” Bacot told reporters after the game, which he returned to and finished with 11 points and 21 rebounds. “No chance that I was sitting out.”
Davis suggested that Bacot would play in Monday night’s championship game by any means necessary.
“He will play. Even if he just stands there, he’s going to play,” Davis said, maybe only half-joking. “We’re going to trick Kansas. He’ll just sit there in the middle of the lane.”
Davis told reporters that Bacot’s X-rays, which he received immediately after the game, were negative. Bacot worked on the ankle for about two hours Saturday night, rehabbed it in the pool Sunday morning and has had a compression sleeve on it to make sure he’s as ready as possible for Monday’s matchup, which Davis said could come down to which team’s big has the advantage.
“If I don’t play, who knows what McCormack may do,” Bacot said, referring to Kansas forward David McCormack, who had 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting Saturday in the Jayhawks’ 81-65 win over Villanova.
Kansas had faced a Villanova team that wasn’t at full strength, which was evident in the Jayhawks’ dominant semifinal win.
The Championship Games in the N.C.A.A. Tournaments
The national finals. March Madness is coming to an end, and the tournaments will culminate with the women’s and men’s national championship games on April 3 and April 4, respectively. Here’s a closer look at the matchups:
Women’s: South Carolina vs. Connecticut. The top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks, which beat Louisville in the Final Four, will face perennial favorite UConn in the championship game. The Huskies defeated Stanford in the semifinals to earn their chance at a 12th national title.
Men’s: North Carolina vs. Kansas. After outlasting rival Duke in Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game, the North Carolina Tar Heels will play Kansas for the national title. The Jayhawks fended off Villanova in the Final Four, avenging their 2018 semifinal loss to the Wildcats.
Justin Moore, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer and their best defender, tore his right Achilles’ tendon in the final minutes of Villanova’s win over Houston in a regional semifinal, and replacing him against Kansas proved easier said than done.
Villanova missed Moore’s leadership on defense as much as it missed his scoring and ability to take some of the offensive pressure off point guard Collin Gillespie.
In his return to Saturday’s game against Duke, Bacot limped up and down the court, favoring his right ankle while not being quite able to get the same lift he is accustomed to when pulling down rebounds. But when he was asked after the game how he felt, Bacot chuckled and said, “I feel amazing. I feel great. Better than ever.”
It isn’t uncommon for players to be dealing with nagging injuries this late in a season, especially those who constantly collide with big-bodied opponents and crash to the floor multiple times a game. Davis said he doesn’t think there’s a player “that isn’t hurt a little bit,” and Bacot, who has been so essential in getting his team to this point, still expects to have an impact in Monday’s championship game, one way or another.
“If I just have to go out there and get a few rebounds and wall up,” Bacot said, “foul a few times or do whatever, that’s what I’ll do.”
In the 1994-95 season, U.C.L.A. guard Tyus Edney had been crucial in the Bruins’ championship title. Against Missouri in the second round, Edney drove the length of the court in seconds and hit the game-winning shot to keep the Bruins’ season alive. But he injured his wrist in the final against Arkansas and played just three minutes.
Bacot, however, said there was no chance of him missing the biggest game of the season, not after the Tar Heels went 14-19 his freshman year, were knocked out of the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament by Wisconsin in his second season and then marched through the tournament this year after many thought they were too mediocre to make it this far.
“My right leg will have to be cut off for me not to play,” he said.