After run to Final Four, UNC's 'Iron Five' revels in success at ACC Barnstorming Tour stop

LOWELL — For some, it was the powder blue that made them fall in love. In Aljhun Escueta’s case, his reverence for University of North Carolina men’s basketball came as a result of something much grittier.

“When I arrived in the states (from his native Philippines) in 2005, North Carolina won a national championship with Sean May leading the way,” he said. "I remember the doubt that people had in them then, and it really made me love the team. I’ve been a Tar Heel fan ever since.”

The 2021-22 Tar Heel squad holds a similar place in his heart, reveling in a memorable season that ended a game short of a national title. “For me, it was the way this team never gave up. All the challenges against them, them being labeled just a ‘bubble team’ to getting that close to a national championship. I’m just proud of them and happy to be a Tar Heel,” Escueta said.

Such reverence brought the Richlands man to Lowell on Wednesday, traveling four hours for the opportunity to meet North Carolina basketball’s “Iron Five” starters. A group consisting of Armando Bacot, “Leaky” Black, R.J. Davis, Caleb Love and Brady Manek were joined by teammates Puff Johnson and Dontrez Styles at Gaston Christian in the first leg of the 2022 ACC Barnstorming Tour.

The event was hosted by North Carolina basketball legend Phil Ford and the locally-based Sumner Group.

For four decades, barnstorming tours have roamed the state. Previously, the event featured Duke, NC State, North Carolina and Wake Forest standouts whose eligibility had run its course in a friendly basketball game often including high school athletes. In the two years since its last events, the ACC Barnstorming Tour was revamped in an effort to best allow athletes to be compensated for appearances based on new name, image and likeness (NIL) rules.

Instead of a friendly hoops contest, the “Iron Five” spent their time in Gaston County taking pictures, autographing countless items and answering questions posed by those in attendance.

One question delved deep into matters, asking the Tar Heel standouts to declare their intentions for the 2022-23 season.

Outside of Manek, who is out of eligibility after four years at Oklahoma and another with North Carolina, the only one who chose to do so was Bacot. Hours before heading for Lowell, the 6-10 big man announced his plan to return to Chapel Hill for his senior season, much to the delight of those in the Gaston Christian gymnasium.

“To be honest, I wasn’t ready to leave … I wasn’t ready to go. Plus, we got so close this year and I really want a national championship,” Bacot said when asked by a child in attendance.

Though less committal than his teammate, Black left the door open for a return. After a fan expressed his gratitude to Black for a great career but would rather wait to do so, the UNC senior and former Cox Mill standout replied: “Yeah, it’s probably best to wait until next season before we do that.”

North Carolina’s defensive stopper, Black said he could be nearing a decision in the coming days.

Caleb Love was frequently asked about his status as well, the sharpshooter mulling between whether to remain in Chapel Hill for another year or take his talents to the NBA. The St. Louis native kept his cards close to his chest, though, not shedding too much light on which direction he is leaning.

Love did take time to discuss a certain shot that will live on in North Carolina lore for decades to come, however.

“I didn’t get silly questions, but the main one I got was which win did I love the most: the one at Cameron or the win over Duke in the Final Four? And of course, I said the Final Four,” he said. “It is great to know 20, 30, 40 years from now I will be able to look back at that and say ‘I did that.’ It will be great to see.”

After this past season, Ford said he came to a few conclusions of his own.

“It was said I’m the best UNC player ever. But I don’t feel I’m worthy of that title, much less being the best point guard up here,” Ford joked. “But for this team to stay together, pull together like you did — though you scared me a bit how late you did it — you guys have earned the right to be named among the best Carolina teams, even though you didn’t win it all.

“All the pieces fit just as they should.”

You can reach Joe Hughes at 704-914-8138, email and follow on Twitter @JoeLHughesII.

This article originally appeared on The Gaston Gazette: UNC's Iron Five comes to Gaston Christian during ACC Barnstorming Tour