For the North Carolina men’s basketball team, life on the NCAA Tournament bubble can be defined by a simple statement: to get in, you don’t have to beat the best — you just have to outdo the rest.
And on Saturday, UNC did just that. Coming off their first truly bad loss of the season — a nine-point home loss to sub-.500 Pitt — the Tar Heels traveled to fellow bubble team Virginia Tech’s house and earned, on-paper, their best win of the season.
It was UNC 65, Virginia Tech 57.
With Michigan’s season flying through wild loops and turns, North Carolina’s home victory against the Wolverines is not currently a Quad 1 win, according to the NCAA’s NET rankings. So, Saturday’s win — against a Quad 1 Hokies team on their home court — was the first, and may have provided the Tar Heels with the push they need for Selection Sunday.
Junior forward Armando Bacot has been in this position before. Just a year ago, North Carolina’s dreams of Madness came down to a few weeks at the beginning of March, and eventually slipped into the tourney as an eight seed.
“Man, last year was terrible,” Bacot said. “Hopefully it won’t be like that this year though. Hopefully, we get to experience a lot of North Carolina fans and make a deep run and have some fun.”
In a vacuum, it might be surprising that UNC would lose to one of the worst teams in the ACC, then beat an NCAA Tournament hopeful in that same week. But such oddity has come to be expected for this year’s roster.
Before Wednesday, the Tar Heels had no truly ‘bad’ losses on their resumé; that is, losses to opponents with no chance of earning a bid to the big dance. But with three McDonald’s All-Americans and a barrage of four- and five-star talents in Carolina blue, are 28-point losses to Miami and Wake Forest not bad?
But inconsistency has certainly become consistent this season. It’s a trend that head coach Hubert Davis hopes to see wane in the latter stages of the season.
“This is a very resilient group,” Davis said. “Another characteristic of who we are is that we have games where it’s not good. So my hope is that those types of games will never happen again the remainder of the season.”
Those moments of inconsistency were sometimes present on Saturday, after a slow North Carolina start gave Virginia Tech the lead for much of the first half.
Then, an impressive Tar Heel run in the final five minutes of the game gave them the advantage right at the break. An explosive start to the first half ballooned that lead to double-digits by the 10-minute mark. But, soon after, a 7-0 Virginia Tech run put it within five points and threw the fate of the game in doubt.
Then, that resilience Davis spoke about came out.
Despite going cold from the field relative to their earlier production, the Tar Heels held the Hokies to 13 points in the final 8:40 of the game. UNC forced Virginia Tech to shoot just 3-14 from deep in the second half, 36.4 percent from the field. The Tar Heels gave up just two free-throw attempts in the final frame.
The Tar Heels only won by eight. But with the game on the line, they dictated how it was played. To keep dancing in March, that’s all they need to do.
“We all felt it,” senior Leaky Black said. “We just know, these are the kind of games we really can’t let slip. Virginia Tech is a great team, but unfortunately we needed this one more than they did and that’s just what it was.”
With just three regular-season games remaining, including two against low-ranked Louisville and N.C. State and one against the title-contending Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Saturday might have been the Tar Heels last shot at an attainable Quad 1 win.
ESPN’s NCAA Tournament Bracketology listed North Carolina among the last four in possibly entering Saturday’s games. This status should improve some after beating the Hokies, but the simple fact remains: UNC must continue to outpace those on the outside looking in.
A loss to Duke is acceptable — if not expected. But a loss to another ACC outsider, however, might leave the Tar Heels among those wondering what might have been come April.
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