“We weren’t very good, and they were.”
That comment by Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was simply put - and simply right - as fifth ranked North Carolina, behind the lead of Tyler Hansbrough’s 23 points and Quentin Thomas’ seven assists, demolished the Hokies 92-53 in front of 20,890 Carolina blue faithful.
“It was really a great day for us but you really have to feel for Seth,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said following the win. “Today was a day where so many things did go well for us. I think it was our best defensive game of the year but let’s be honest, they missed some shots that they normally would make. ... We played well. I am not going to act like it was just their poor play.”
The Heels started hot with Wayne Ellington starting the rout just eight seconds in. Hansbrough hit the next two buckets to put Carolina out in front 6-0 before Tech forward Jeff Allen broke the ice and scored for the Hokies. That would be Allen’s only basket of the first half and one of only seven first half field goals for Virginia Tech.
"We got into them early defensively and that kind of shot their confidence away," Ellington said of the Tar Heel defense.
While Tech couldn’t solve the ramped up Carolina defense, the Heels kept piling on the Hokies with solid play from the usual suspects – Hansbrough and Ellington – and big time plays from unlikely sources in sophomore Alex Stepheson and the increasingly productive Thomas.
Stepheson’s follow dunk after a missed layup on the fast break by Thomas put the Heels up nine, 14-4, and stirred the Dean Dome crowd heading into the first media timeout.
“We have been after Alex all the time to keep running and get involved in the play,” Coach Williams said, “Q missed the layup and Alex dunked it back in and then he goes to the other end and gets a big time block for us as well.”
Stepheson’s hustle on both ends set the tone for the game and signaled to the visitors that nothing would come easy on this day.
“We were more aggressive defensively,” Williams said of his team’s effort, “I didn’t like the number of times we fouled them and put them on the free throw line but we got some turnovers and got our break going. It was probably our best game of the year in our half court defense and probably our best game of the year in our half court offense.”
With that defense and productive half court offense, Carolina pushed the lead to 16 on a three pointer by Will Graves at the 5:54 mark before two Tech buckets cut the margin to 29-18 at the four minute media time out.
Que the "Q Dunk-a-thon."
A Thomas baseline dunk got the Smith Center jumping and got the Heels rolling. An Ellington basket and Danny Green free throws pushed the Carolina lead to 37-20 and set up perhaps the most impressive highlight the California senior has turned in during his four year career.
Thomas’ crossover and drive through the lane ended with a left hand jam that turned up the volume on the already loud Smith Center crowd. Thomas had dunked twice in 1:21; so surprising that not even he could recall the last time he dunked during a game.
“Nah, I can’t even remember,” a smiling Thomas said during the post game interviews.
But Thomas didn’t surprise his teammates as they took the moment as evidence Thomas has firmly grasped his role with the Tar Heels.
“He is getting more and more comfortable,” Ellington said, “For him to come in when Ty (Lawson) got injured, it was tough. We were used to Ty pushing the ball and fast breaking himself. Now we are getting used to Q operating the team.
“I knew Q had it in him because we’ve seen it. But for him to do it in a game, that just shows he’s getting more comfortable out there.”
“Not at all,” Marcus Ginyard responded when asked if he was surprised, “Q definitely prefers to dunk left handed so every time he’s dunked in practice, it’s always left handed so it was nothing that surprised me. No shocker to us.”
The Virginia Tech Hokies never recovered and trailed at the half by 20 after Alex Stepheson’s layup at the buzzer on a pass by none other than Thomas.
The Hokies would follow up their abysmal first half shooting by missing their first nine shots of the second half and eventually fall behind by 30, 60-30, at the 11:54 mark. To that point in the second half, Tyler Hansbrough had outscored the Hokies himself, 9-7.
After two weeks of grinding through games without Tywon Lawson, the Heels finally had a chance to enjoy a breather.
“Our defense really came out and set the tone today and that’s something we have been looking for,” Ginyard said after the win. “I think we did a great job of executing, especially defensively and I guess that’s what made it a different ball game than we’ve been used to lately...definitely happy and relieved we didn’t have to fight it out to the end.”
With the margin, Coach Williams was able to rest Deon Thompson the entire second half and give Mike Copeland and Will Graves extended minutes to answer the challenge Williams issued earlier in the week.
Graves chipped in ten points and pleased himself (“You always want to play well, I just thank God it came sooner than later.”) and his coach in the process, but it wasn’t just the four for five shooting that earned high marks.
“Will did much better and every one will think of the three point shots,” Williams said, “But he got a defensive rebound and sprinted back on defense and got into the lane. Those types of plays were more important than his shot going in.”
Hansbrough added nine rebounds to his 23 points and in the process, passed Walter Davis on all-time UNC scoring list and Bobby Jones and Mike O’Koren on the all-time rebounding list. Thomas also tallied a career high six rebounds. Alex Stepheson’s nine rebounds helped the Heels out-rebound the Hokies 54-24.
Tech matched its 7-27 shooting first half with duplicate numbers in the second for 26% shooting on the day while the Heels, despite seven misses in the last minutes, shot 50% for the game.
Through adversity comes experience and Quentin Thomas is gradually becoming the player that was expected of him since he arrived on campus. Saturday was just the next step in that progression.
“I think with each and every game Quentin has gotten more comfortable,” said Coach Williams, “The biggest thing is he has been able to stay healthy. I think that’s been the biggest thing throughout his career is being able to have some time where he’s not so beat up.
“He’ll still have a turnover where you’ll shake your head because you know how good a ball handler he is, but rebounding, passing, defending, it was a much better game than he’s had.”
Thomas knows his time has come, but knows the only way the Heels can reach their potential is with everyone in the mix together.
“I feel a lot more comfortable whether it’s starting or coming off the bench,” Thomas said regarding his improvement. “I can’t wait until Ty comes back because that’s a big piece of our puzzle. I want Deon to get healthy. Danny was sick with the flu but he still gave us good minutes. The more we have on depth in our team it helps.”
Carolina will need that depth as the ACC season continues to grind along with the next stop in Raleigh against the slumping, but always dangerous at home, NC State Wolfpack at 7pm Wednesday night.