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Virgina Tech (10-5, 1-2 ACC) rode a hot start by point guard Malcolm Delaney to build a 16-point lead over the Tar Heels (12-4, 2-0 ACC) in the first half. Delaney scored 15 of his 28 points before the break making 5-of-7 from three-point range.
Carolina struggled shooting early, converting just 37 percent of its shots and 1-of-9 from behind the arc in the first half. But a late 8-0 run in the final 2:51 -- sparked by back-to-back baskets by Kendall Marshall -- cut the Hokie lead to seven at the break.
Virginia Tech extended its lead back to double digits on a Delaney three at the 17-minute mark of the second but Carolina used its height advantage inside to slowly chip away at the lead. Tyler Zeller and John Henson punished a small Virginia Tech lineup scoring 17 of their 28 points in the second half.
Marshall returned to the floor at the 15 minute mark with the Heels trailing by seven and sparked a 10-2 run culminating in a Henson dunk with 10 minutes left. Henson's basket gave Carolina its first lead since the opening minute.
Following three big jump shots from Harrison Barnes, a Zeller layup gave the Heels the lead for good at 57-56 with 2:18 left but the Hokies made it interesting in the final minute.
A three-pointer by Delaney cut a four-point lead down to one but a big stop by Marshall on Delaney and two free throws by the freshman point guard with 2.8 seconds left secured the second conference win of the season for Carolina.
Coming Into His Own
Kendall Marshall's stat line against Virginia Tech speaks for itself. In 24 minutes he scored nine points on 3-of-4 shooting and dished out nine assists with zero turnovers.
But perhaps the best gauge of Marshall's night against the Hokies was the scoreboard.
In a three-minute stretch at the end of the first half, Marshall sparked an 8-0 run cutting a 15-point deficit down to a manageable seven. At the 15-minute mark of the second, Marshall entered the game and the Heels outscored the Hokies 8-2 over the next six minutes. In the final 5:33, Carolina outscored the Hokies 17-14 to secure the win.
Simply put, the Heels created offense more easily and more effectively attacked a tough Virginia Tech zone with Marshall on the floor.
"Kendall is a true point, as true as they come," Harrison Barnes said. "He gets everyone involved. I can't explain it. When you're out there with him, everyone knows they're going to get a touch. They know he's going to find them in the right position. If you're open, he's going to get you the ball. It's a shooter's dream. I think all the shooters on team can agree it's a dream for them."
Zeller said Marshall's impact doesn't always show up in the form of an assist but that he helps initiate ball movement.
"I think it's a lot easier when he gets it started," Zeller said. "Say he drives down the middle and hits a guy in the corner, then you pass it all the way around, it's very easy to see that. Once somebody can create that, it's a lot easier to play."
Marshall even answered his most consistent critique on the game's most important play. When found on a switch with Delaney -- with the Heels leading by just one -- Marshall kept a hand in his face and forced a miss in the closing seconds.
After the Heels collected the rebound Marshall was fouled and made both free throws to seal the win.
"With the defensive play and the free throws -- both of those take a lot of confidence and a lot of ability to step up and knock those down," Zeller said.
Attacking The Zone
This was the first time this season Carolina faced a zone for a full 40 minutes and it looked like it for stretches.
Carolina struggled shooting in the first half and failed to consistently get the ball to its big men. When the Heels did feed the high post, Henson and Zeller struggled to find each other and turned the ball over.
"In the first half we were rotating around and standing still," Roy Williams said. "We needed to get the ball inside. We needed to move inside more. We needed to screen more people."
In the second half the Tar Heels improved their ball movement and screening -- forcing the Hokies to move in their zone -- and found open seams.
"They're very good at getting into the passing lanes," Marshall said. "I think the main thing for me was just finding our sweet spots -- the high post, the short corners, having to attack those gaps and get them in positions where they're out of place."
Henson and Zeller also tweaked their high-low attack.
"Me and Z talked (at halftime) and we said ‘When I catch a high low there, they're collapsing for the high-low look. So we either should catch it and attack or look opposite,'" Henson said. "That's what I tried to do in the second half."
Henson in particular came up big in the second half, scoring 12 points and pulling down six boards.
As Delaney Goes...
Coming into Thursday, the rap on Virginia Tech was the Hokies went as far as point guard Malcolm Delaney could take them. After a 5-for-7 start from three-point range by Delaney and a 16-point lead by the Hokies in the first half, there was little doubt.
Delaney shredded the Tar Heels with 15 points in the first half on 5-for-9 shooting.
"He's one of the best in the ACC as well as the country," Marshall said. "He got hot early. I think he hit four threes. We lost him a couple times in transition. I feel like he's the heart and soul of their team and he takes them a long way."
But as Delaney heated up the Hokies began to get tunnel vision offensively. Virginia Tech ignored its post players -- the starters combining for 4-of-13 shooting -- and settled for perimeter jumpers. Jeff Allen in particular struggled, finishing the game with four points on 2-of-7 shooting after an impressive stretch in recent weeks.
Delaney finished with 28 points but as he came back to earth in the second half the Hokies came back with him.