BLACKSBURG, Va. — 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 Paiges 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 wasnt one for the highlight reel. At the end-of-the-season team banquet, its 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 didnt like about his teams 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 youre 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 wasnt 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 UNCs 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 McAdoos 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 didnt 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. Eddies layup with five seconds left cut UNCs 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 its not going to go our way all the time, McDonald said. And sometimes were 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 havent 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 weve had 85 practices, Williams said. And what is this 29 games. My God. If you cant get fired up 29 times, thats something wrong with you. Cause I dont buy all that junk.
And yet everybody says it and I think its a bunch of junk. If I get to play 29 games, Im going to play my blankety-blank off 29 times.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter