“We knew it was going to be a really tough test,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “It’s one of the games that I’ve talked to my team in the past about [how] we have to win some games ugly, and I think that we did that tonight.”
The Tar Heels (26-3, 12-3 ACC) were not perfect against the up-and-down Hokies, but they displayed the elements that will be critical in making a serious run at cutting down the nets at the Final Four in Detroit. Tyler Hansbrough (22 points, 15 rebounds) and Ty Lawson (22 points, five assists) delivered in starring roles, Wayne Ellington (15 points, five rebounds) and Danny Green (10 points, four rebounds, four assists) added perimeter firepower and Deon Thompson (eight points, five rebounds, two blocks) and Ed Davis (eight points, six blocks) provided solid effort in the paint.
But more importantly, North Carolina rose to the occasion every time Virginia Tech (17-12, 7-8 ACC) presented a serious challenge.
“When a team goes on a run and you don’t stop their run, it’s hard to get your momentum back and swing it the other way,” Green said.
After a pair of Jeff Allen slam dunks cut UNC’s lead to 39-36 with less than 40 seconds remaining before halftime, the hostile Hokie crowd rose to its feet, raising the decibel count in Cassell Coliseum to levels unheard this season by this reporter.
Lawson set up Williams’ play call, clearing out the left side of the floor with Thompson and Hansbrough set up at the foul line. The latter screened so the former could drop down to the post, and then the senior All-American rolled out to the left perimeter, where Lawson found him for a dagger of a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 42-36 lead at the break.
That’s just one example of many on a night that North Carolina shot just 40.9 percent (27-of-66) from the field, while holding Virginia Tech to 40.6 percent (28-of-69). The defense has taken the brunt of the criticism levied against UNC this season, and there were several easy buckets for the Hokies on Wednesday. But the Tar Heels' defense came up with stop after stop when the offense struggled to put the ball in the basket.
Virginia Tech rallied from an early 17-8 deficit to cut the lead to 22-20, but were held scoreless on its next six possessions. The Hokies forced the first tie of the game at 50, but then failed to put points on the board over their next four opportunities.
The offense pulled its own weight late, absorbing two A.D. Vassallo 3-pointers to knot the score at 56 before capitalizing on its next two possessions to build a five-point cushion.
“On two different occasions, they tied the score, and both times we scored immediately and then got a stop and scored immediately again,” Williams said. “I liked our toughness at that point.”
And when it mattered most – holding a 63-62 lead with 5:16 left in regulation – the Tar Heels scored 10 points on five straight possessions while holding Virginia Tech scoreless on its next four opportunities, building a 73-62 lead with 2:59 remaining.
“That was big for us,” Hansbrough said. “We just came out and got the shots that we wanted to, and got a couple of stops defensively, and that was the game for us.”
Despite winning the rebounding battle, 42-41, the Hokies never led on Wednesday.
“I thought we did a lot of good things, but we were not able to just dig down and find something in the pit of our stomach that made losing unacceptable,” Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg said.
The Tar Heels closed out the contest in postseason style, knocking down 11 of their final 14 free throws to hold off a late Hokie rally. UNC connected on 76.5 percent (26-of-34) of its overall charity shots.
Vassallo led Virginia Tech with 25 points on 11-of-21 shooting, while Malcolm Delaney added 19 points and five assists and Jeff Allen contributed 18 points and 12 rebounds.
For North Carolina, its 12th conference win guarantees at least a share of the ACC regular season title for the third straight season. In 21 seasons as a head coach, Williams has earned at least a share of a regular season conference title in 13 of them.
There’s only one game that stands between North Carolina and the start of postseason play – Duke on Sunday afternoon.