WASHINGTON, DC — A year ago, North Carolina didn’t play on Semifinal Friday at the ACC Tournament.

That team would never play together again, declining an NIT invitation after being bounced in a bubble bursting loss to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals.

From preseason camp to ACC Tipoff to a season sweep of rival Duke and a regular-season ACC title, one word has permeated everything North Carolina has worked to accomplish: redemption.

It was on the tips of player tongues after Friday night’s grind it out 72-65 semifinal win over Pittsburgh, too.

“From the day we started workouts, redemption has been a constant,” graduate Armando Bacot told SDS on Friday. “Whether it was me or RJ (Davis), or Jalen or Seth, what happened last season left a bad taste in our mouths. We might not be the best players to ever play at North Carolina or even some of the best. But we play hard for our university. We love this place. We knew we could do better.”

Bacot led the charge to do better on Friday, scoring 19 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, and meting out 2 blocks in a staunch defensive performance that saw the Tar Heels hold the Panthers to just 30 second-half points in a comeback win that set up an epic ACC Tournament final against rival NC State. Bacot’s physical presence inside was the main storyline in a rough and tumble game characterized by players diving for loose balls, locked arms in the post, and bodies slamming into each other on the glass. In the end, the Tar Heels outrebounded one of the nation’s best rebounding teams 44-34, bulldozing their way into their first ACC championship game since 2018.

Friday’s win was the latest evidence of the versatility of this North Carolina squad, which can win its 19th ACC Tournament crown on Saturday with a win over rival NC State. The Tar Heels are an 8.5-point favorite via FanDuel.

Want to play fast, get up and down in transition, and take early shot clock looks? North Carolina is happy to do that, as they did in a not as close as the final score 100-92 win over Tennessee in November, or their 93-84 blasting of Duke in the Smith Center in early February.

Want to play methodically, slow the game to a crawl, and demand halfcourt execution? North Carolina can do that too, as they demonstrated in winning 54-44 at Virginia last month or a 65-55 win at Clemson in January.

Want to muck the game up, make it about physicality and bully ball drives and who can control the glass?

North Carolina can do that, too, as a desperate Pitt team learned in a bubble-bursting defeat Friday.

After the win, Harrison Ingram, one of a pair of transfers who has been instrumental in North Carolina’s Redemption Tour, echoed this sentiment.

“We can play bully ball, too, right,” Ingram told the assembled media at the Capital One Arena. “We aren’t going to be rattled. Maybe people think we are soft. That’s a mistake. Maybe teams think they can punk us, but we’re not those pretty boys. We’re rugged. We love the talk and the nasty game. When it gets physical, that’s the game we’ll play.”

Pitt was determined to make the interior game a fight so that the Pitt guards could operate in isolation. A season ago, when North Carolina was often bullied in switches, that might have worked.

Friday it did not, because the bedrock of this Redemption Tour in Chapel Hill, of this steely, determined run to one championship and a chance Saturday to play for another, has been defense. Tough, fight for every inch defense. It’s also been a coaching staff pragmatic enough to adjust. Instead of always switching off the ball, the Tar Heels have done it only when the scouting report demands it. Instead of playing drop coverage on pick-and-rolls constantly, the Tar Heels have hedged or even blitzed ball screens, obliterating pick-and-rolls before they begin.

Friday, Hubert Davis knew Pitt wanted to let Carlton Carrington and Jaland Lowe, Jeff Capel’s talented young guards, get downhill in a hurry. To counter, Davis switched every ball screen, daring the young duo to make tough shots over bigger, extended hands, and trusting his help defense if they got into the paint. The move worked, as Pitt managed just 5 assists, failing to exploit mismatches from switches, and failing to get star Blake Hinson (5 points, 0-5 from deep) in rhythm in the process.

North Carolina’s defense, fatally flawed a season ago, is now the root of redemption. Friday’s second half, in which the Tar Heels limited Pitt to just 33% shooting and 30 points, was the 35th time in 66 halves this season that a North Carolina opponent shot under 40% in a half.

Entering Saturday’s ACC title game vs. the Wolfpack, it is the Tar Heels, not much ballyhooed Virginia, that leads the ACC in defensive efficiency. Overall, North Carolina ranks 6th nationally in KenPom Defensive Efficiency, the best mark for a team in Chapel Hill since the 2010-2011 Tar Heels, with defensive stoppers John Henson and Reggie Bullock and All-American Tyler Zeller, finished 5th nationally in defense.

Guarding, grinding, making what Hubert Davis calls “impact plays.” A collective will to win and axe to grind.

“Oh, we have something to prove,” Ingram said. “We always have a chip on our shoulder. We’ve been doubted. No matter what we’ve done, no one chooses us or thinks we’re good. That’s fine. We like it that way.”

That’s Tar Heels basketball this year, a Carolina blue collar thing of beauty, with plenty redemption left to chase.