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'Got the ball rolling': UNC dominates the paint, advances to ACC Tournament semifinal

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UNC sophomore forward/center Armando Bacot takes the ball in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals against Virginia Tech on Thursday, March 11, 2021 in the Greensboro Coliseum. The Tar Heels beat the Hokies 81-73. Photo courtesy of Robert Willett/The News & Observer.

Roy Williams makes a lot of sacrifices to have his teams play the style he wants. 

Insisting on playing two traditional bigs on the floor at all times makes UNC's spacing look atrocious at times. The Tar Heels consistently have to trade 3s for 2s in a losing numbers game. Plus, there's an automatic mismatch with any mobile, skilled forward. 

But the second half of North Carolina's 81-73 win over No. 22 Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament showed how just Williams won his three national championships — oh, and how he just passed Bob Knight to become third all-time in career wins for a Division I men's basketball coach. 

The Tar Heels take the ball and ram it down their opponent's throat. Over and over again. 

UNC might not be able to shoot much, but who needs to shoot when you can muscle away every rebounder to score immediately on a putback? The Tar Heels might not have perfect spacing, but who needs spacing when your bigs can just overpower everyone around them on their way to them rim? 

North Carolina was lucky to be down just three points at the half. After playing an undersized Notre Dame team, Virginia Tech's physicality seemed to catch the Tar Heels by surprise. UNC had just two offensive rebounds in the opening 20 minutes after grabbing 18 in the first frame on Wednesday's bout with the Fighting Irish. 

"I thought (Virginia Tech) had a good strategy at the beginning," sophomore forward Armando Bacot said. "They was just doing a good job of boxing us out, meeting us early. But I mean, we got four good bigs, so eventually, we knew that was gonna wear (them) down, and that's in the second half." 

That's the secret to Williams' style. He knows it will hurt to play against his team for 40 minutes.

The results aren't always as soul-crushing for the opponent as they were against Notre Dame on Wednesday, when the Irish looked like a squad of middle schoolers trying to prove they can hang with the varsity team.

But at the end of the day, it's taxing work to try and fight off the tandem of senior Garrison Brooks and Bacot, just to have them replaced by the towering duo of first-years Walker Kessler and Day'Ron Sharpe. 

Even with Brooks hampered by an ankle injury that kept him off the court against Notre Dame, it's difficult for any team to keep up with UNC's relentless frontcourt. When they're engaged, that is. 

The entire season has been a tale of two teams. First, there's the one filled with bruising post players, whose guards hit just enough shots to keep the defense honest. Then, the inconsistent collection of youngsters who seem to forget they can just push their opponent around. 

The latter is the version that showed up in the first half on Thursday. 

"It's pretty evident in the first half, their sense of urgency was much greater than ours, they played harder than we did," Williams said. "They drove us to the basket, their reactions were quicker and more aggressive, more focused." 

After a halftime of getting chewed out — the word soft was thrown around, Bacot said — North Carolina remembered its unofficial season motto: you big, bruh

Bacot scored 13 of his 17 points in the second frame, and UNC outrebounded the Hokies by 10 in that span. Combined with RJ Davis scoring 14 of his career-high 19 points in the second, and some clutch 3-pointers from Leaky Black, the Tar Heels once again pounded away at their opponent until they simply gave out. 

Now, UNC will have to face No. 15 Florida State, playing its third game in three days, while the Seminoles haven't played since losing to Notre Dame on March 6. If the Tar Heels want to keep their run going, they'll have to outmuscle the Seminoles like they did two weeks ago — and like they've done against opponents the past two nights. 

"I feel like it's a challenge, but I feel like we're all for it," Black said. "I feel like, half the time, practices have been harder than our games. And, you know, you really just feel battle tested. You know, I feel like we got the ball rolling right now. And you know, I don't think we're gonna stop." 

@bg_keyes

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com