UNC (16-3, 3-1 ACC) arrived in Blacksburg after one of the most surprising outcomes of the college basketball season, a 90-57 loss at Florida State on Saturday. The Tar Heels were in trouble on the road once again, trailing 39-34 at the half, but they took control with a 19-0 spurt in the second half.
Harrison Barnes led the charge with 21 of his season-high 27 points after halftime, shooting 6-for-6 from the floor in the final 20 minutes. John Henson contributed 16 points, 16 rebounds and six blocked shots, and Tyler Zeller added 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Erick Green led Virginia Tech (11-7, 0-4) with 17 points. Dorenzo Hudson had 16 points, but he went scoreless in the second half on 0-for-4 shooting from the field. Jarell Eddie added 15 points, and Robert Brown had 12 points for the Hokies.
The Tar Heels dominated inside, outscoring Virginia Tech 38-14 in the paint and outrebounding the Hokies 51-28, but they might have suffered a loss on the perimeter. Starting guard Dexter Strickland fell to the floor with 16:44 remaining in the second half, clutching his right knee in agony. He did not return to the court, spending the rest of the game with an ice bag on his knee. He will undergo further evaluation Friday.
INSIDE THE GAME
Practice Makes … Better
As you might imagine, the Tar Heels didn't have much fun at practice in the aftermath of their loss at Florida State. Coach Roy Williams made sure of that.
"Not fun. Not fun at all," Kendall Marshall said while describing the workouts. "These past couple of days are something that when I look back and I'm talking to my kids, I'll be like, ‘This one day I got to meet Coach Roy Williams. The real one.' I'll get to tell them about that, but I don't think it will ever leave this locker room what he did to us. It wasn't anything too bad, though."
Whatever Williams did obviously was effective. Even the coach was pleased with the work he saw and the results it produced at Virginia Tech.
"It was by far the best practices we had all year long," Williams said. "It's not even close."
Bouncing Back on the Road
The road had not been kind to UNC this season. The Tar Heels entered the game having not won a game away from the Smith Center since Nov. 25, when they knocked off South Carolina 87-62 in Las Vegas. They lost to UNLV 90-80 the next day, lost at Kentucky 73-72 on Dec. 3 and then got blown out at Florida State.
When they fell behind against Virginia Tech, they had to rebound. How'd they do it? Well, rebounding helped. The Tar Heels pummeled Virginia Tech 28-9 on the glass in the second half.
"At halftime, when we sat in the locker room, we kind of had a moment of truth," Henson said. "What kind of team did we want to be? We came out in the second half with fire we've needed to have the whole season, and hopefully we'll keep it."
The rebounding was symbolic of UNC's overall increase in energy. The Tar Heels pulled down 12 offensive rebounds in the second half -- Virginia Tech managed just three defensive boards after halftime -- and were much more active defensively. Plus, UNC shot 52 percent from the floor and attempted 18 free throws in the second half after earning just three free throws in the first half.
The halftime scoreboard was a motivating factor for the energy boost, but the memory of the pain the Tar Heels endured the previous couple of days was even more powerful.
"It was the practices after the Florida State game," Barnes said. "I think no one wanted to go back to that. Everyone wants to enjoy this week and be able to go to class and keep the weight off themselves and get some good sleep at night."
Falcon Spreads His Wings
Barnes started UNC's engine, dominating the second half. He ignited UNC's decisive 19-0 run with a personal 6-0 spurt in 59 seconds, making two free throws, a jumper and a driving one-handed dunk on consecutive possessions to pull the Tar Heels within 44-42.
But he wasn't finished. He gave UNC the lead for good at 46-44 with a pullup jumper in transition, and he added a jumper and 3-pointer on consecutive possessions to put the Tar Heels ahead 67-49 with eight minutes to go.
It's no coincidence that UNC's best half of the season as a team came in the same period as Barnes' best half as an individual. Barnes was everywhere, attempting 10 free throws and even blocking a 3-point shot.
"I just had to do whatever the team needed," he said.
It was quite a response from Barnes, who had been just 7-for-25 from the floor (1-for-9 on 3-pointers) in the previous two games combined.
"He just got that fire in his eye," Henson said. "He took the game over, and that's what we want from him."
The Knockout Punch
Virginia Tech made its first two shots of the second half, seemingly carrying over the offensive momentum it generated in the first half. But then the Hokies slammed into a wall. Hard. The Tar Heels ripped off a 19-0 run over the next 5½ minutes, making once-raucous Cassell Coliseum a suitable location for quiet study.
The Hokies went without a field goal from the 18:43 mark of the second half until the 9:25 mark, when Robert Brown made a 3-pointer from the corner. But it was too late by then. The Tar Heels led 62-49 and kept piling on.
Virginia Tech, which made 8-of-16 3-point attempts in the first half, connected on just 5-of-15 3-point tries in the second half.
"For me, our effort and our intensity and our activity the whole second half was better than it's been in any game this year," Williams said.
The Hokies had made their strategy obvious from the beginning of the game, launching 3-pointers on their first four shots from the floor. All of those shots misfired, but that did nothing to deter the Hokies from bombing away from 3-point range.
Virginia Tech made eight of its next 12 3-point attempts. The concerning part for the Tar Heels is that they played such porous perimeter defense a game after allowing Florida State to make 12-of-27 3-point tries on Saturday. And it's not like Virginia Tech was especially lucky.
Green banked in a trey with the shot clock winding down after back-to-back blocks by John Henson early in the first half, but the vast majority of the other attempts were uncontested looks. The Hokies were especially open -- and effective -- on passes to the corner off penetration. At least four Virginia Tech 3-pointers in the first half came from deep in the corner.
Hudson enjoyed a 16-point first half on perfect shooting (5-for-5 FG, 4-for-4 3-pointers, 2-for-2 FT). Hudson had been 0-for-8 from 3-point range in ACC play before getting hot against the Tar Heels.
"It's all mental," Barnes said. "That's all we did. We just had more of a sense of urgency, more toughness and just more will to get through those screens. In the second half, we did a good job of getting up, pressuring them and getting them off the 3-point line."