GREENSBORO, N.C. — Armando Bacot and Cole Anthony said it felt like a home game. Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson laughed and whispered to each other, out of range of their mics, at the postgame podium. Head coach Roy Williams opened his news conference with a joke about the poorly lit staircase that nearly “broke my dadgum neck” as he walked up it seconds earlier.
In other words, North Carolina had fun Tuesday. After a 78-56 win over Virginia Tech to open ACC Tournament play, it was hard for the team not to.
The Tar Heels have flirted with righting the ship so many times this season, rattling off a few wins in a row before falling into another losing streak. They’ve played their style of basketball — fast breaks, rebounding, inside-out play — before being hampered by injuries and inconsistency.
Through it all, players have spoken of a lingering confidence and a chance to run the table, on this very stage in Greensboro, to reach the NCAA Tournament.
And despite their coach stressing a measured approach — he wrote “That’s just one” on a whiteboard in UNC’s locker room afterward — there was still a pervasive message postgame among the players on the lowest-seeded team in Greensboro.
“At this point, we're embracing it,” Bacot said. “Coach is a competitor. We just want to go out there and win it all.”
In their first step toward that very publicly stated goal, the Tar Heels had plenty of highlights.
Brooks continued a scoring tear with 20 points (his seventh straight game hitting that mark), and Robinson sank a game-high five 3-pointers. UNC outrebounded Virginia Tech, 45-30, and scored 32 points in the paint to the Hokies’ 12.
The team got contributions from Anthony, Bacot and Justin Pierce, too, en route to its fourth win in its last five games. It all happened in front of a decidedly pro-UNC crowd at the Coliseum.
“I think we've had some really solid games as a team (recently),” Anthony said. “This was another one.”
Added Williams: “Very happy to still be here. Told the kids, ‘Let's play as hard as we can play, as well as we can play, and at the end somebody may let us stay around and play another one.’ And I thought that's what we did.”
North Carolina won this first-round game with timely spurts of offense, among them a 17-3 run to start the game, a 7-0 run late in the first half after Virginia Tech’s Landers Nolley started heating up and a 7-0 run to start the second half.
None were as crucial, though, as a 15-2 flurry that gave the Tar Heels their largest lead of the game (25) with six minutes left.
Grad transfer Pierce started it with two tip-ins, one off an Anthony miss and one off his own, before Robinson put his mark on it with consecutive 3-pointers, the latter a between-the-legs stepback.
Then Brooks had an easy dunk off a pick and roll — a play Virginia Tech struggled to defend all night — and Robinson made another 3-pointer. Just like that, North Carolina was up 68-43.
“I think that was one of our biggest second halves of the year,” Bacot said of those 20 minutes, when UNC shot 54.8 percent and outscored Virginia Tech, 46-30.
After the win, North Carolina’s players balanced caution with confidence, with Anthony noting the team’s “not going to be here all week if we're worrying about the end of the week.”
They spoke of tomorrow night’s game against No. 6 Syracuse — a team they beat on the road in late February — and staying grounded.
But the jokes and smiles rolled, too, from player and coaches alike on a now-healthy team that took a first step it hopes isn’t its last.