BLACKSBURG, Va. – After an explosive start on Sunday, No. 2 North Carolina encountered adversity in the form of foul trouble that swung momentum in Virginia Tech’s favor and turned a potential blowout into a hard-fought ACC road victory.
On paper, UNC’s size advantage suggested a poor matchup for the Hokies. Starting forwards Zach LeDay (6-foot-7) and Shane Henry (6-foot-8) lacked the length for a level playing field with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, and that discrepancy was evident early as the Tar Heels built a 36-16 lead.
UNC had more blocked shots (4) in the opening 12 minutes than Virginia Tech had field goals (3-of-17) despite the Hokies’ slashing style of offense.
The Tar Heels were cruising at Cassell Coliseum, at least until foul trouble disrupted their course of action. Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks were all relegated to the bench in the first half with two fouls, and with Joel James sidelined for a second consecutive game due to an Achilles injury, Roy Williams elected to go small with freshman forward Luke Maye at the 5-spot.
Virginia Tech capitalized, outscoring UNC’s small lineup 11-3 over the final 4:02 and concluding the half on an 18-3 run.
The momentum followed the Hokies into halftime as they had cut their deficit to 39-34.
“We were up 20 in the first half and we just got a little complacent defensively,” senior guard Marcus Paige said after the 75-70 win. “They banked in some threes and got some and-1s, but this really could have been a completely different game if we would have kept the throttle on for a couple of minutes, or if we had made one or two more shots, it might have been a blowout.”
Senior forward Brice Johnson, who led UNC with 19 points and 17 rebounds, highlighted the foul trouble as the pivot point of the first half.
“It was very tough on us, so we kind of let up on them and they brought it back to a five-point game and got their confidence,” Johnson said. “We can’t get into a situation like that. We’ve just got to keep grinding it out and keep putting our foot on the pedal and not letting up on them.”
Williams was not as willing to place the sole blame on the foul trouble, although he agreed it was a factor.
“We started thinking it was going be easy,” the 13th-year UNC head coach said.
UNC’s small lineup played a significant role in the team’s offensive success while Meeks was sidelined for a month with a bruised left knee. Without a defensive presence in the paint, however, the Hokies found their rhythm in attacking the rim.
“Our small lineup has been effective at times this year, but we struggled today with it,” Paige said. “For whatever reason, we couldn’t get stops and we didn’t get very many good shots out of that lineup. We’d like to have our big guys in there, especially today.”
Williams returned to his traditional lineup after halftime, although by then Cassell Coliseum was raucous and the Hokies’ confidence was intact, resulting in a competitive finish.