North Carolina

After tense three games, UNC should have it easier against Virginia Tech

North Carolina’s Nate Britt (0) is the only point guard on the team who is fully healthy after injuries to starter Marcus Paige and reserves Joel Berry and Stilman White.
North Carolina’s Nate Britt (0) is the only point guard on the team who is fully healthy after injuries to starter Marcus Paige and reserves Joel Berry and Stilman White. rwillett@newsobserver.com

For three consecutive games now North Carolina has entered the final seconds not completely sure of its fate - whether it might win or lose. The Tar Heels are in the midst of a run of games unlike any they've experienced in nearly 40 years.

You have to go back that far, to 1976, to find another three-game stretch like the Tar Heels' past three games - all decided by two points or less. UNC in its past three games lost in the final seconds against Notre Dame, won in the final seconds against Louisville and then survived N.C. State's late rally on Wednesday night.

Now comes something of a relief. Or at least it appears that way.

Virginia Tech enters the Smith Center on Sunday ranked 181st nationally, said Ken Pomeroy, who uses an advanced metric combining a team's offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency - among other measures - to create a national ranking.

At No. 181, Virginia Tech is by a wide margin the lowest-ranked team in the ACC. The Hokies have lost four consecutive games - though they lost by only two points against Syracuse earlier this month - and their best win, according to kenpom.com, came in their opener against Maryland Eastern Shore.

The game on Sunday begins a three-game stretch that should be kinder - and far less heart-pounding - than UNC's past three games. During the next week, the Tar Heels play Virginia Tech at home, Wake Forest on the road and Florida State back at the Smith Center next weekend.

Those games are against three of the ACC's weaker teams, and the Hokies and Seminoles are the two weakest teams in the conference, Pomeroy said. The relative break in the schedule appears to come at a good time for the Tar Heels.

Marcus Paige, the junior guard, has been playing through the pain that comes with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Paige, who followed his game-winning layup against Louisville by scoring 23 points during the 81-79 victory against N.C. State, appears to have rediscovered his form.

Behind him, though, the Tar Heels are thinner than they used to be. A groin injury will keep freshman point guard Joel Berry on the sideline for the next two or three weeks.

He sat out the victory against N.C. State. Stilman White, another reserve point guard, is also hurt. Paige hasn't been practicing in full given his foot condition, so that has left UNC with one fully healthy point guard: sophomore Nate Britt.

The next week, though, could offer the Tar Heels a chance to get well - and to heal without the kind of stress they've had to endure recently in close game after close game. Not that the past three games haven't been without their benefits.

The Tar Heels showed some toughness, mental and physical, in pulling out close wins against Louisville and N.C. State. And Paige, who had been struggling, played as well as he had all season at N.C. State, where in addition to the 23 points he finished with nine assists and no turnovers.

"Everybody wondered if he lost confidence," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "I don't think he ever lost confidence. He's a really smart youngster. Not only in the classroom, where he's an academic All-American, but he's a smart youngster on the basketball court, too.

"Realizing that things aren't going to be perfect."

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