UNC struggles but finds a way in 60-56 victory at Virginia Tech

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2014 

  • Observations

    • Marcus Paige at times looked like the best player in the ACC on Wednesday night, when he scored a career-high 35 points and made the game-winning shot in an 85-84 overtime victory at N.C. State. He found things considerably more difficult on Saturday at Virginia Tech, where he finished with nine points on 3-for-7 shooting. Paige didn’t often look for his shot against the Hokies’ 2-3 zone. Said UNC coach Roy Williams, of Paige’s quiet game: “He missed some shots today. He had some pretty good looks. But sometimes he’s not selfish enough. He passes up some looks that might be even better for him. … I think it’s good. I mean, Marcus Paige scores nine points and we still win. He has one assist and we still win.”

    • North Carolina played some zone of its own, and switched up defenses throughout the second half. The Tar Heels played their usual man, but also went with a 3-2 zone and a 1-3-1. UNC used the 1-3-1 with success in the second half of its victory against Duke on Feb. 20. The Hokies struggled regardless of the defense. Virginia Tech, which statistically is the least efficient offensive team in the ACC, shot 35.6 percent from the field and made eight of its 20 3-point attempts.

    • J.P. Tokoto, UNC’s sophomore forward, put together another strong game. He finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the overtime victory at N.C. State, and he had 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals at Virginia Tech. Offensively, Tokoto said afterward that he has made a point of being more assertive. “I’m just looking to score more, be more aggressive,” he said.

    Andrew Carter

— Roy Williams made one final pass through the North Carolina locker room on Saturday afternoon and on the way out, stopped for a quick word with Marcus Paige, who scored nine points during the Tar Heels’ 60-56 victory at Virginia Tech.

“I told them you were bad,” Williams told Paige with a smile, needling him after one of his least productive games of the season. It was a joke, a lighthearted moment between coach and player, but Paige nodded and shrugged and quickly agreed with Williams’ assessment.

Had the Tar Heels (22-7, 12-4 ACC) lost, the mood might not have been jovial. But despite Paige’s quiet nine points, and despite shooting just 41.8 percent against the Hokies’ frustrating zone defense, and despite struggling at the free throw line – again – the Tar Heels prevailed.

The victory wasn’t one for the highlight reel. At the end-of-the-season team banquet, it’s doubtful Williams will regale the audience with tales of that fateful early March Saturday, when the Tar Heels squeaked out a four-point win against the worst team in the ACC.

Yet it was a victory nonetheless – the Tar Heels’ 11th consecutive, and one that assures them of a double-bye in the upcoming ACC tournament. There were a lot of things Williams didn’t like about his team’s performance at Cassell Coliseum, but one thing he did was that it found a way.

“You have to understand as you go through a season, sometimes you’re going to play really well,” Williams said. “And you hope you win those games. Sometimes you can even lose those. But to have a great year, you have to win a lot of games ugly, to be honest with you – the way I look at it.”

This was one of those games. The Tar Heels started well enough and made four of their first five shots, but then it was a slog. North Carolina led by seven in the first half, and by nine early in the second but the Hokies (9-19, 2-14), winners of one game this calendar year, never went away.

This was their final home game and senior day, and a victory against a ranked North Carolina team might have salvaged some sense of accomplishment amid a lost season. The No. 19 Tar Heels, though, never quite allowed Virginia Tech over the hump.

After the Hokies tied the score with about 12 minutes left, North Carolina sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto made a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels the lead for good. Tokoto, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, entered Saturday having made 25.9 percent of his 3-point attempts, yet showed no hesitation on the one that broke a 36-36 tie.

“It was an open shot,” he said. “I took two in the first half and missed. But it was another open shot and I wasn’t thinking about the first half when I missed them. I was just thinking about the shot I had then.”

A few minutes later Paige made a floater in the lane that gave North Carolina a seven-point lead, and James Michael McAdoo stole an entry pass and finished UNC’s possession with a dunk on the other end to give the Tar Heels a 49-40 lead with a less than seven minutes to go. That sequence – McAdoo’s steal and dunk – was emblematic of his second half.

McAdoo, the junior forward, had three points at halftime but he finished with 15.

“He really brought it,” Paige said of McAdoo. “This was a day where not all of our guys were fully into the game – 100 percent effort and attention to detail. But Mac brought the intensity.”

Still, the Hokies didn’t fold. They trailed by five points with 1 minute, 19 seconds to play, and by four after a Jarrell Eddie 3-pointer with 40 seconds to play. Eddie’s layup with five seconds left cut UNC’s lead to three but Leslie McDonald, the senior guard who finished with 14 points, made the second of two free throws to put the game away.

McDonald rebounded from his poor game at N.C. State and made the most important free throw of the game – and made it after he missed two free throws with 35 seconds to play, allowing Virginia Tech, down five at the time, to hang around. UNC finished 9 of 18 from the line.

“Sometimes it’s not going to go our way all the time,” McDonald said. “And sometimes we’re not going to win smooth. Sometimes we have to just grind it out and get those ugly wins. It just shows the character of this team – we can win ugly.”

North Carolina did that Saturday, and now owns its longest winning streak since the start of the 2008-09 season. The Tar Heels haven’t won this many consecutive ACC games since the 2000-01 season, when they also won 11 straight before losing at Clemson.

Williams was happy with the victory, and happy that his team earned a double-bye in the ACC tournament. Still, the performance left him bothered, too. The Tar Heels had been through emotionally challenging games recently – at home against Duke, at N.C. State – and in some ways they seemed spent at Virginia Tech.

“I told them in that locker room at halftime – we’ve had 85 practices,” Williams said. “And what is this – 29 games. My God. If you can’t get fired up 29 times, that’s something wrong with you. Cause I don’t buy all that junk.

“And yet everybody says it and I think it’s a bunch of junk. If I get to play 29 games, I’m going to play my blankety-blank off 29 times.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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