After a 91-72 victory against Virginia Tech on Thursday night, North Carolina will enter the final weekend of January in the same position it hopes to be in come the end of the first week in March: alone in first place in the ACC.
The Tar Heels (19-3, 7-1 ACC), led by Justin Jackson’s 26 points and a dominant rebounding performance against the smaller Hokies, won their seventh consecutive game. They own the ACC’s longest winning streak, though their schedule becomes more difficult starting on Saturday at Miami.
This is the second of three times UNC will play two conference games in three days. The Tar Heels, at least, didn’t necessarily have to expend an abnormal amount of energy on Thursday. They took control with a 23-6 run over about 6½ minutes in the first half and led by double digits throughout the second half.
By the time UNC built a 64-43 lead with about 13½ minutes remaining, Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams had for a while relieved himself of the constrictions of his sports coat. He called a timeout and wiped the sweat from his forehead when it ended.
At the time UNC’s 21-point lead was its largest. It grew, though, to 25 with about 10½ minutes remaining, and to a 26-point lead with less than six minutes to play. The Hokies never did mount any kind of inspired rally that might have placed the outcome in doubt.
The day before, on Wednesday, UNC coach Roy Williams warned of the Hokies’ contrasting style – their use of a smaller lineup that would require the Tar Heels’ post players to extend themselves defensively. That wasn’t too much of a problem, it turned out.
And to the contrary, UNC exploited its significant size advantage in a variety of ways. Put more simply, it dominated Virginia Tech (15-5, 4-4) both in rebounding (an 43-22 advantage, overall) and scoring in the paint, where the Tar Heels outscored the Hokies 42-30, with Virginia Tech closing that margin late. UNC finished with 20 second-chance points – the sixth time in the past seven games it has had at least that many.
In addition to Jackson’s 23 points, both Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks finished with 15 points for the Tar Heels. Meeks also had 14 rebounds, and finished with his eighth double-double of the season. Eight UNC players finished the game with multiple assists.
About the only thing that went wrong for the Tar Heels was that Theo Pinson, the junior wing forward, left the game in the first half with an ankle injury. School officials said that he rolled his right ankle, on the same foot in which he suffered a broken bone during the preseason.
Pinson had five points and three rebounds when he left the game with about 9½ minutes remaining before halftime. He didn’t return, but a school official said that was precautionary.