They were the kind of circumstances in which North Carolina often wilted a season ago, in the kind of game that the Tar Heels often lost last season: on the road, a lead once commanding now gone, a packed arena at its loudest.
“Last year in the same situation, it could have got real interesting,” Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said Sunday after his team’s 75-70 victory at Virginia Tech. “But we just kept it at mildly interesting, which is a big difference and a big change for us as a team this year.”
During long conditioning workouts in the summer, during longer practices in the fall, the Tar Heels often talked about the kind of thing they experienced on Sunday here at Cassell Coliseum. They talked about finding a way to win without their best, about finishing games in tense situations.
And seldom are circumstances tenser than they were on Sunday for second-ranked UNC (18-2, 7-0 ACC) in the final minutes, what with its 20-point lead a thing of the past and with the Hokies (12-8, 4-3), previously unbeaten at home in the ACC, with all the momentum.
UNC and Virginia Tech were tied at 68 with less than three minutes remaining. By then the Tar Heels’ early dominance was a distant memory, and the Hokies, one of the ACC’s most improved teams, appeared poised to pull off another memorable upset.
In a situation like that, Paige said, “It’s really just a single-possession mindset.”
“Not like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’ve made up 15 points,’ ” Paige said. “It’s more like, if we can get this one possession to go our way then we can start building upon another momentum shift for us.”
The Tar Heels made one possession go their way. It happened on defense, first, when Brice Johnson, the senior forward who led UNC with 19 points and 17 rebounds, came up with a steal and was fouled in the process. He made two free throws to break the tie.
And then Johnson made another steal, which led to a layup from Justin Jackson, who finished with nine points. Two Virginia Tech turnovers and two successful offensive possessions for UNC gave the Tar Heels a 72-68 lead with 71 seconds remaining, and suddenly the momentum had shifted when they most needed it to turn.
“We played with a lot of poise at the end of the game,” Johnson said. “That’s the one thing that was our Achilles heel last year, and it really hurt us in the long run, so that’s just the one thing we’ve been working on.”
In the months before the season began, UNC coach Roy Williams and his staff hung up signs in the weight room and in the locker room reminding the team of its second-half failures a season ago. On the signs was a question that asked players what they’d do to help the team finish.
On Sunday, Johnson answered that question with his free throws and late defensive plays, and Jackson answered with his layup, and Joel Berry, who finished with 13 points, answered with an important 3-pointer that broke an earlier tie with about seven minutes remaining.
Paige, mired in a confounding shooting slump, had an answer, too. After the Hokies cut UNC’s lead to two points, again, he made a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining that sealed the victory. The Hokies never came closer.
“I wanted to get a chance to redeem myself,” Paige, referencing an earlier missed free throw, said afterward, “So I stepped up and made two big ones. That definitely helps a little bit, confidence-wise.”
He still struggled, overall. Paige entered Sunday having made three of his past 25 shots from the field and then he went 2-for-10 against Virginia Tech, with the two made shots coming in the first few minutes. And the Tar Heels struggled again, too.
They shot 37.8 percent from the field – their third consecutive victory while shooting less than 40 percent.
“We’re not very confident right now,” Williams said. “... But I was not concerned (about shooting), but now I can be concerned if I want to, because three games is enough.”
Before this recent stretch, UNC hadn’t had to win games ugly like this. The Tar Heels won in a new way on Sunday, too, after giving up a big lead only to reclaim it in the end.
Williams said it was “about as ugly a game for us as it could possibly be.”
He’d said similar things after sloppy victories in the previous eight days against N.C. State and Wake Forest. In those, though, his team hadn’t done what it managed to do on Sunday, when it surrendered a 20-point first half lead.
UNC led 36-16 with a little less than six minutes to play before halftime. To that point the Hokies had missed 16 of their 20 shots from the field. But then they found some offense, and UNC, with most of its post players having collected two fouls, went small.
“We started thinking it was going to be easy,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels figured out soon enough that it wouldn’t be, with that realization coming somewhere in the time it took the Hokies to close the first half on an 18-3 run. That cut the Tar Heels’ lead to five points at halftime, and it was close throughout the second half, with the Hokies taking a brief 61-59 lead with eight minutes remaining.
Williams looked at the stat sheet afterward and credited his team’s victory to rebounding, especially offensive rebounds. UNC finished with 20 of those, which led to 18 second-chance points, while the Hokies rebounded a meager six of their missed shots.
Offensive rebounds helped UNC attempt 24 more shots from the field, no small difference in a game that was decided on the final few possessions. There was something else, too, that made a significant difference for the Tar Heels on Sunday – an intangible spirit they often lacked a season ago.
“We just know that we’re a very tough team,” Johnson said, “and we’ve got to keep grinding it out.”