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Virginia Tech (17-4, 4-3 ACC) jumped out to a 20-8 lead behind Dorenzo Hudson's early eight points, but North Carolina (13-9, 2-5 ACC) battled back to claim a 27-26 edge before eventually taking a 35-33 advantage into halftime.
But the Hokies were able to pair an 8-2 run with a 9-3 spurt only minutes apart midway through the second half in building a 61-52 lead. North Carolina was able to cut that deficit to 69-67 with 1:09 remaining in regulation on a Larry Drew steal and layup, but Delaney's free throws gave Virginia Tech a four-point advantage that UNC could not overcome.
Delaney paced Virginia Tech with 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting, while Hudson (17) and Jeff Allen (14) also scored in double figures. Ed Davis led North Carolina with 15 points and seven points, and freshmen forwards John Henson (14) and David Wear (12) posted career-highs in scoring.
UNC shot 43.4 percent (23-of-53) from the floor compared with the Hokies' 38.8 percent (26-of-67) showing, while the Tar Heels also won the rebounding battle, 40-36, although Virginia Tech did pull down 14 offensive boards. North Carolina dished out 12 assists while coughing up 19 costly turnovers, including 10 in the second half.
INSIDE THE GAME
Henson Playing the 4-Spot?
There's no doubt that John Henson has failed to live up to his preseason hype through the first 22 games of the 2009-10 season, but the long and lanky freshman is beginning to show flashes of the vast potential that made him a headline recruit for Roy Williams.
In North Carolina's victory over N.C. State eight days ago, Henson ignited the Tar Heels' second-half flurry with three blocks, two rebounds and a long-armed lay-up that made many a Carolina fan stand up with visions of the future dancing in their heads. The 6-foot-10, 190-pounder delivered an even better performance against Virginia Tech, scoring a career-high 14 points in 14 minutes of action.
"He did some nice things for us tonight; there's no question," Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
With Deon Thompson limited to 22 minutes due to foul trouble, Williams slid Henson over to the 4-spot for the first time this season. But this wasn't a spur of the moment decision – the freshman started practicing in his new position following Sunday's loss to Virginia.
"[Coach] asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I'd like to play down low a little bit as well," Henson said. "That's how it all started and that's what I've been doing the last couple of days, switching between the 3 and 4 with Dave [Wear]."
Henson has struggled with the physicality of the college game during his short stay in Chapel Hill, but the move down low has already showed signs of narrowing that gap as seen by several strong moves to the basket on Thursday. He indicated following the game that the adjustment has gone as well as could be expected.
"It's not that hard," Henson said. "The offense we run is interchangeable, so it's been an easy transition. There's different people guarding me, so that's probably the biggest difference. I'm guarding Deon every day in practice instead of Will [Graves]."
A Strong First-Half Recovery
The prevailing thought entering Thursday night's ball game centered on the Tar Heels needing a fast start to take the hostile Cassell Coliseum crowd out of the equation. After all, North Carolina has struggled mightily on the road this season, and the Hokies' domain represents arguably the loudest arena in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
That hope vanished essentially as soon as the ball was tipped, as a pair of Dorenzo Hudson 3-pointers helped Virginia Tech jump out to a quick 8-1 lead. That margin eventually grew to 20-8 midway through the first half, thanks in large part to UNC missing nine of its first 11 field goal attempts and coughing up seven turnovers. The Hokies, on the other hand, connected on 53.3 percent (8-of-15) of their shots and had only one turnover in building that 12-point lead.
"We came out and we said, ‘We've got to sprint back – they're going to try to run us,' and we did a poor job of getting back…," Williams said. "We said, ‘We've also got to take care of the basketball.' They're leading the league in steals and we had to take care of the basketball, so we put ourselves in a hole."
But instead of watching that deficit continue to grow as they have done so many times this season, the Tar Heels calmed down and rallied back to take a 35-33 lead into halftime. North Carolina knocked down 55.5 percent (10-of-18) of its field goal attempts and committed only two turnovers during the role reversal, while Virginia Tech struggled in hitting just four of their final 19 shots (21.0 percent).
"I think it was just being a little more intense and taking better care of the basketball and sprinting back," Williams said in explaining his team's turnaround.
While the Tar Heels would ultimately lose the ball game, their ability to minimize the damage in a potentially hazardous run on the road highlights a maturation process that is slowly, but surely, taking place in Chapel Hill.
"We've got more heart and we're trying to show it," junior forward Will Graves said. "It's just a matter of putting everything together. We're doing it piece by piece. We show one at a time. We just need to do it all together at once."
Strickland Starts, Ginyard Sits
The biggest surprise of the evening took place before the game ever started. When the starting units walked out to the center circle, freshman Dexter Strickland made his way onto the floor as fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard sat on the bench.
"Marcus has been struggling," Williams said in explaining his decision. "I thought he handled it greatly. He came in and he hasn't made many field goals recently, but he made a couple of them tonight. He made a couple of just great hustle plays tonight like he had done in the past that we hadn't seen recently."
Ginyard told reporters that he found out he wouldn't be starting on Thursday afternoon. When asked what his initial thoughts were following the announcement, he simply said, "Coach is doing his job."
But while that move seemed like a big deal initially, Ginyard entered the game less than four minutes in and played 31 of the final 36 minutes at both shooting guard and small forward, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds in addition to committing four turnovers.
If Williams' goal was to strictly send a message to his maligned senior, it may take another game or two to see if the decision pays off.