UNC avoids upset epidemic by pounding Virginia Tech

UNC bucked the recent trend of upset losses by top 10 teams by hitting a season-high 14 3-pointers in a 91-72 win against Virginia Tech on Thursday

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Virginia Tech guard Justin Robinson (5) collides with North Carolina guard Kenny Williams (24) during the first half of the NCAA college basketball game at the Smith Center Thursday

CHAPEL HILL — The No. 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8 teams in the college basketball rankings all lost this week, But that wasn’t the warning No. 9 North Carolina heeded going into Thursday night’s game against Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels received their wakeup call long before Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky, Florida State and UCLA went down to defeat within 48 hours of one another. It came on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, courtesy of Georgia Tech. Since that stunning loss to start the ACC schedule, coach Roy Williams’ team has won seven straight. The latest was a surprisingly easy 91-72 beating of the Hokies at the Smith Center, a victory that saw UNC buck the recent trend of upsets by hitting a season-high 14 3-pointers, recording 25 assists on 36 baskets and pounding out a dominating 43-22 advantage on the boards. “It happened to us against Georgia Tech, so when we see that we know the feeling of it and we don’t want that to happen again,” freshman center Tony Bradley said of the urgency his team brought to the game. “We had to get off to a great start. To start off the momentum we have to jump out on them.” In that respect, things didn’t exactly go according to plan for the Tar Heels, who fell behind 13-7 in the opening four minutes after Tech hit three of its first four 3-point attempts. It took Joel Berry’s long-range shooting and a jolt of energy off the bench — along with a 3-pointer and a tip-in — from Theo Pinson to establish the momentum Bradley mentioned. Once UNC finally got off and running, the only thing that was able to slow it down was a “rolled right ankle” that forced Pinson to the sideline for the final 30 minutes as a precautionary measure. Six different players made at least one 3-pointer, with Berry and Justin Jackson hitting five each. Jackson led all scorers in the game with 26 points while Berry and big man Kennedy Meeks had 15 each. Ten different players recorded assists, with eight having two or more while only committing seven turnovers. The Tar Heels pulled down almost as many offensive rebounds (19) as Tech had on both ends of the court (22) while scoring as many as 20 second-chance points for the sixth time in seven games. “Overall we had some good intensity,” Jackson said. “We can get some more stops and have those translate to runouts, but I think we’re right where we want to be.” That may be the case as far as the ACC standings are concerned. UNC (19-3, 7-1) is suddenly all alone in first place thanks to the carnage that has taken place around it. But even that’s not good enough for Williams, who was anything but pleased by the way his team played defense at times against the vastly improved Hokies. Tech (15-5, 4-4) shot 51 percent for the game, making 26 of their 51 field goal attempts. Although UNC’s offensive prowess more than made up for the defensive lapses, Williams warned that the shots won’t always be falling like they did Thursday. He said that the difference between being good and great is almost always determined by the way a team plays defense, not how many points it scores or rebounds it grabs. “The other things are going to keep you in the game, but if you really want to be great you have to guard people better,” Williams said. “Last year we led the league in field goal percentage defense in conference games. We also won the league. Both of those go hand-in-hand.” UNC is currently fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense with opponents shooting 43.6 percent from the floor. That’s still not good enough for Williams. But considering the alternative, as all those other top 10 teams learned this week, things could certainly be a lot worse. “We saw the Florida State loss and knew that we moved up to No. 1 (in the ACC),” Meeks said. “We want to stay on top. Teams are just being passive and losing games that maybe they should not be losing. For us, we have to take care of business. I feel this team is definitely capable of doing that.”