That, of course, was the dominating second half performance the Tar Heels turned in against Virginia Tech on Thursday night in Blacksburg. The 48-29 margin is impressive enough, but understates how dominant Carolina was over most of the period before getting a bit sloppy at the end: the Hokies scored just 10 points in the first ten minutes plus of the half, and the Tar Heels mounted a 17-0 run in less than five minutes of game time to turn this one on its head.
Harrison Barnes was the pivotal performer in that particular stretch, tallying 8 of his 27 points in a two and a half minute spell, but it was a quintessential team effort. Tyler Zeller and John Henson each had double-doubles as Carolina amassed a huge rebounding advantage and essentially kept Tech out of the lane, Kendall Marshall added some impressive dribble drives to a more characteristic ballhandling performance, and Reggie Bullock (in for the hurt Dexter Strickland) delivered a key three to push the lead to five at 49-44, a shot which seemed to knock a lot of the belief out of both the home team and the home fans.
In short, it was a night in which Carolina looked like a really good team. Despite Virginia Tech’s 0-4 start to conference play, there isn’t a coach in the country who wouldn’t be delighted with a 14-point win in Cassell Coliseum.
But given what happened last weekend, this one met much more than just a win in a traditionally challenging environment. Rather, this game was a major test of this team’s collective character. Indeed, Carolina came out of the gate clearly intending to give a better defensive effort than seen last Saturday in Tallahassee, almost forcing a shot clock violation on the very first possession and holding the Hokies to six points in the first six-plus minutes.
But after Erick Green banked in a three late in the shot clock, the floodgates seemed to open for Tech and the ball started going in. This time it was Dorenzo Hudson who played the role of struggling-veteran-who-suddenly-can’t-miss, nailing four threes and all five of his field goal attempts en route to an incredible 16-point first half. As a team, Tech hit 8-of-16 first half threes—some on open looks after beating traps, but some that were contested or even guarded.
Consequently Carolina found itself down at halftime yet again despite what looked like a much improved overall effort. Henson’s lob dunk before halftime was a nice confidence boost, but the possibility that Carolina was about to see its season fall into imaginable abyss at halftime seemed very real.
Instead, halfway through this nineteenth game of the season, the collective alarm clock seemed to go off for this team. Carolina played after the break with a sense of urgency and a collective commitment on both ends of the floor. But it’s hard to convince people you are playing hard if you are not also playing well, and Carolina played very well indeed.
Offensively, the Tar Heels quite simply got the ball go into basket, and not just on dunks and layups. Barnes’s pullup jumper off a steal to give Carolina the lead for good at 46-44 was a classic shot, topped only by the deep three he hit later on push the Tar Heels up 18. At some point, you have to hit shots, and Barnes led the second half charge on that front.
But the bigger story was the defense over the bulk of the second half. In an 11-minute stretch from the 18-minute to the seven-minute mark, the hosts scored just five points (while Carolina amassed 31 points). Inflicting that kind of dry spell on an opponent not only tilts the scoreboard in one’s favor, it neutralizes the home court advantage. Tech was just 1-of-17 from the field from that stretch, as Carolina seemed to do a better job contesting the outside shot while continuing to deny the Hokies anything at all in the paint.
Predictably, Carolina slacked up defensively the last seven-plus minutes and allowed 19 points in that time period, making the final score much more respectable from Tech’s point of view.
Therein lies a teachable moment for Roy Williams’s team. Everyone who watches basketball understands that there is random variation over the course of any particular game with respect to how often open and lightly guarded shots go in. Players and sometimes entire teams can blow hot or cold at different times during a game.
But the contrast between allowing five points in 11 minutes and then 19 points in seven is not likely to be fully or even largely explained by such random variation. Carolina getting more relaxed and losing just a bit of urgency on defense near the end surely had something to do with it too.
What Carolina’s players should take away from that contrast is twofold. First, if you give up makeable shots, it’s best to assume the other team is going to make them. Yes, it really is possible for guys to go 8-10 or 5-5 from deep—if you let them.
Second, perhaps that contrast will allow the players to see just how good they could be if they were as dominant all the time defensively as they were during that 11-minute period of the second half. To be sure, it’s probably not realistic to think Carolina could match that level of effort defensively for 40 minutes all the time—every team is going to have lapses periodically—and still less realistic to think that such favorable results will always be attainable. (Some teams are good enough to get good shots even against maximum defensive effort, and some players are capable of hitting contested shots.)
But it is realistic to think Carolina could aspire to reach that standard. The emphatic nature of Carolina’s second half performance Thursday makes it the win of the season, so far. Perhaps in time it will also be remembered as the night this Tar Heel team looked basketball mediocrity in the eye, and decided they’d prefer to put in the defensive work required to achieve excellence.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.