Blacksburg, Va. — The look of dejection on the face of North Carolina men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams said it all.
He did not expect to be in this position again, searching for answers from his team in front of a gaggle of reporters. Not tonight, anyway. But after another lackluster showing from No. 10 UNC in a stunning 80-69 upset loss in Blacksburg, Va., here he was.
“I feel the same way I felt the last time I was in Virginia," Williams said at the start of his postgame press conference.
He was, of course, speaking of a 61-49 road loss suffered at the hands of Virginia on Jan. 6 in Charlottesville. That defeat had dropped the Tar Heels to 1-2 in the conference.
In an increasingly competitive ACC race, every game matters. To win the league, teams must win tough road matchups. The Tar Heels (16-5, 5-3 ACC) have been unable to do that thus far in conference play. The loss to an upstart Virginia Tech Hokies (14-6, 3-4 ACC) team dropped UNC to 1-3 on the road in league play.
Coach Roy Williams attempted to deflect the blame from his players after the defeat.
"I think Buzz (Williams) had his team much more ready to play than I had my team,” he said. “They were much more aggressive physically, mentally and to everything they were doing. We thought we could have an advantage inside, and they scored 32 points to our 26 in the lane."
Williams was correct in his assessment of the lack of effort, something he has preached to the media many times this season. But, based on how the game unfurled, it seemed as if he was wrong in the placement of the blame.
With 10:50 remaining in the first half, the Tar Heels looked to be in control on their way to a fifth consecutive victory, up by seven points. Luke Maye and Joel Berry II combined for the Tar Heels' first 15 points. The two were clearly primed for big nights.
With 5:21 remaining, the game still seemed to be in UNC’s control and the team held a 30-24 advantage. The problem is, basketball is a five-person game; the other three Tar Heel starters failed to show up.
Over the final 5:21 in the first half, the Tar Heels were outscored 15-2 by a surging Hokies squad. The stretch included four 3-pointers from Virginia Tech, each one met with roars of approval from the home crowd at Cassell Coliseum.
It was a dreadful first half from every Tar Heel but Maye and Berry. Graduate transfer Cam Johnson was 1-7, including three misses on 3-pointers. Kenny Williams was 1-5 and had already picked up two fouls. Theo Pinson had only attempted one shot and missed it.
Not only did the Tar Heels enter the break down on the scoreboard, but they were clearly lacking in the energy department. Missed assignments leading to open threes, six first half turnovers and a complete reluctance to move the ball around and get some easy looks — and, instead, settling for tough 3-pointers (4-16 in first half) — plagued the Tar Heels.
“We gotta know that every team is going to come after us,” Berry said. “This is conference play, and we can’t take a game off. And, you know, we came out with energy in the first half and then toward the end of the first half it just was like everything just went down.”
As the game began to slip away from UNC, one thing became clear: The Tar Heels are relying far too much on Maye and Berry to win games.
“I think we stood around too much and watched one guy,” Roy Williams said. “Most of the time it was watch Joel, but watch one guy do it, instead of everybody getting involved."
Berry and Maye did their best to give the senior point guard his 100th victory as a Tar Heel, each scoring a game-high 23 points, but no other UNC player finished with more than five points. North Carolina's three other starters combined for just 11.
With 17:36 remaining in the game, the Hokies had opened a 42-34 lead. It was Berry who kept the Tar Heels close. On two straight possessions, the senior point guard hit tough 3-pointers, doing his best to lead his team to an eighth straight win over the Hokies.
Maye did his best to help, adding nine second-half points after scoring 14 in the first half. But it takes more than two players to win the game. The effort was not there, as the second-leading rebounding team in the country surrendered 36 rebounds, outnumbered on the glass for just the third time this season.
“We just didn’t get to the glass, took bad shots,” Maye said. “They got easy runout points. Offensively, we didn’t get to the glass, we took a lot of 3-pointers, long rebounds leading to breakouts, and just didn’t handle it very well for us.”
The trend of relying solely on Maye and Berry does not point to a game-winning effort. But Coach Williams didn't need to reiterate that.