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Virginia Tech (12-2, 0-1 ACC) jumped out to an early 25-16 lead and took a 38-34 lead into halftime behind Malcolm Delaney's 20 first-half points. But North Carolina (12-4, 1-0 ACC) used a 6-0 run out of the locker room to regain the lead and would only trail once more the rest of the night.
The Tar Heels outscored the Hokies 25-11 during an 11-minute span down the stretch to lock up their first conference win of the season.
Will Graves and Deon Thompson both scored 13 points for North Carolina, and Larry Drew added 14 points on 4-of-4 shooting, including two 3-pointers in the pivotal second-half run. Marcus Ginyard, Leslie McDonald and Graves all played despite being labeled as "questionable" with right ankle sprains heading into the contest.
Delaney led Virginia Tech with 26 points, six assists and five rebounds, while Dorenzo Hudson missed more shots (15) than points scored (14) following a 41-point performance against Seton Hall on Jan. 2.
North Carolina connected on 53.8 percent of its field goal attempts (28-of-52), while holding the Hokies to 35.8 percent (24-of-67). UNC also outrebounded Virginia Tech, 38-35, despite allowing 17 offensive rebounds.
INSIDE THE GAME
A sharp-dressed Will Graves sat on the end of the North Carolina bench on Monday night and could only watch the overtime loss in Charleston. The sprained right ankle that forced the red-shirt junior to miss that game also saddled him with a "questionable" tag heading into Sunday night's ACC opener.
But the Greensboro, N.C. would not only start against Virginia Tech, he would provide much-needed energy and effort in areas not relating to his silky-smooth jumper.
On Virginia Tech's second possession, Graves blocked Terrell Bell's interior shot into the student section to incite the crowd in the opening minute of play. At the 8:14 mark of the first half, the small forward found Ed Davis inside to cut the Hokies lead to 25-21 and then promptly forced a jump ball on the ensuing defensive possession. A pass deflection on the perimeter several minutes later brought praise from the entire Tar Heel bench.
Graves has long been known as a shooter first and a question mark everywhere else. But the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder made his presence felt early on Sunday in areas other than the point total – his first basket of the game arrived with 40 seconds remaining before intermission.
"I just try to give 100 percent every possession," Graves said. "That's all I try to think about – giving all of the effort, giving 100 percent and just doing everything to not let Coach [Williams] yell at me."
Of course, Graves took it upon himself to blow UNC's ACC opener wide open in the second half, draining three 3-pointers in a four-minute span that increased a five-point lead to 14. His 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting (3-of-7 from long range) were a career-high in ACC play, but his six rebounds, two blocks, assist and steal spoke more about his play on this night.
"I'm never worried about offense because God blessed me with a decent jump shot," Graves said. "So I just try to go out there and do everything and if I'm wide open, I'll take a shot. But other than that, I'm trying to get rebounds and trying to play off my teammates' play."
Looking purely at the statistics, North Carolina's first-half defensive appeared solid enough – Virginia Tech only shot 37.8 percent (14-of-37). But the Hokies pounded the offensive glass for 11 rebounds, thus providing them with eight more field goal attempts than the Tar Heels.
And then there was Malcolm Delaney. The talented junior point guard utilized ball screens to get into the lane for a shot (5-of-8), an assist (3) or a foul (8-of-10 from the charity stripe).
In all, Delaney scored 20 of Virginia Tech's 38 points prior to halftime.
Williams was already showing one defensive twist on Sunday by switching to zone on Virginia Tech's out-of-bounds plays underneath its own basket, but the Hall of Famer added another by sending help defense at Delaney in the second half.
The result was Delaney needing a Tar Heel tap-in to earn credit for his lone field goal after the break, while also connecting on four more free throws. Williams attributed part of his team's success to the junior's lingering left ankle sprain, but Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg confirmed that defensive adjustments served as the key component in shutting down his standout guard.
"They also committed a second defender to him," Greenberg said. "Let's face it – every time he came off a ball screen, there was a second guy. Every time he came off a stagger, there was a second defender, and you've got to give them credit."
With Delaney blanketed, the Hokies connected on just 33.3 percent of their field goal attempts (10-of-30) in the final 20 minutes.
"It was a better defensive effort for us in the second half," Williams said. "I still think they hurt us a little bit on offensive rebounds. They had 14 [points off OR] for the game and I think they had 10 at half. So they only had two baskets, but I always think each one counts 25 points when you give up an offensive rebound."
The Importance of Having Fun
Before every game, Williams writes a few key phrases on the locker room wipe-off board to remind his players of those items' importance. The notes could be about boxing out or hustling after loose balls, but on Sunday, one message stood out to freshman Leslie McDonald – "Have fun."
With confidence lacking and the losses mounting, things like having fun can easily be forgotten.
"I don't know about everybody else, but for me, I was so tense trying to do everything, trying to know every play and just trying to do too much on the court," McDonald said. "I wasn't having fun. So I just relaxed, [found] confidence in myself and really tried to have fun on the court."
Fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard knows from experience that you can often create fun times by doing what it takes to win.
"You've got to play well to have fun," Ginyard said. "We always talk about how we want to have fun out there and the easiest way to have fun is to play well, to play hard, be running around out there, getting involved and playing together. That's the easiest way for it to happen. When you do that, you start to see things go your way and that's when you have fun."