GREENSBORO — The Tar Heels live to fight another day.
The end of the UNC season was postponed by at least 24 hours after a 78-56 win over Virginia Tech in the opening round of the ACC Tournament.
Carolina arrived in Greensboro at the end of a brutal season, wrecked by injury and bad luck. The Tar Heels entered at 13-18, 6-14 in the ACC and the bottom seed in the conference. It was the first time UNC has had to play on Tuesday’s opening round.
About the only way to salvage things would be to win five games in five days, something never accomplished before in the tournament — it was only a few years ago that a team finally won four in four days to take the conference title.
“Play as hard as we can as long as we can,” Roy Williams told his team, “and in the end, maybe they’ll let us stay awhile.”
The Heels showed that their late season renaissance wasn’t just the result of lucky scheduling, however. Carolina won three straight, home against NC State and Wake Forest and on the road at Syracuse, before losing the season finale to Duke.
On Tuesday, the Heels had their way with a Virginia Tech team that beat them in double overtime in Blacksburg. The Hokies rely on the outside shot and athletic wing players, two things that have given the Tar Heels trouble all season, but Carolina was able to keep Tech in check, limiting the Virginia Tech offense to 29% in the first half, second half and the game.
“Different pace,” Tech’s Landers Nolley, held to 10 points by UNC’s defense, said of the difference between UNC from the first game to march. “Different style of play.”
“The game was a lot faster,” Jalen Cone said. “They play faster with Cole on the floor.” UNC freshman Cole Anthony missed the first game with a knee injury that kept him out more than a month.
“A more explosive North Carolina team these last two-three weeks than we’ve seen to this point,” said Hokies coach Mike Young.
Tech missed the first seven shots in the second half, covering 3 minutes 40 seconds, as the Tar Heels grew a six-point halftime lead into a 13-point margin.
Finally (mostly) healthy, Carolina continued to show the promise that was there at the start of the season. Garrison Brooks had 20 points. Armando Bacot had a double-double. Senior Brandon Robinson hit 5-of-6 from 3-point range for 17 points and six rebounds, and Cole Anthony scored 10 points with eight rebounds and four assists.
The Hokies had no answer, getting swamped on the boards by an 45-30 margin.
Now all the Tar Heels need to do is … it, again.
Flipping the March cliché of “There’s no tomorrow,” on its head, there can be only tomorrow’s for Carolina as it needs a Groundhog Day-type of identical performances all week long. The first time the Tar Heels don’t match their Tuesday performance, their season is over.
Next up is Syracuse, who lost to the Tar Heels at home in the only meeting this season. Carolina hit 11 threes against the Orange zone in the first matchup. The Heels won the battle of the boards by 10 and got the ball inside to Brooks (26 points).
All they need to do is … it, again.
“I get another opportunity to put this jersey on,” senior Brandon Robinson said.