With under five minutes left to play, the North Carolina men’s basketball team was at risk of letting another winnable game get away. Virginia Tech had been able to cut a once 12-point lead down to five and the re-energized Hokie fans had the Cassell Coliseum rocking.
With the UNC lead now seven, Virginia Tech forward Keve Aluma grabbed a rebound off a missed Tar Heel shot, and looked to pass it to an open teammate as a way to get the game back within two possessions. But the redshirt senior never saw senior forward Leaky Black snatch the ball right off his hands. Right after the steal, sophomore guard RJ Davis found a cutting Brady Manek, allowing the graduate transfer forward to slam in the open dunk.
The momentum suddenly shifted back onto North Carolina’s side, which they maintained for the duration of the game. The Tar Heels were able to hold on to a 65-57 victory — thanks to one of their better defensive performances of the season.
“We knew they wanted to ruin our season and our backs were against the wall,” Bacot said. “So, we had no choice but to come in and win.”
After the buzzer sounded, sophomore guard Caleb Love stared at the Hokie student section behind the basket.
“Let me hear you,” Love said as he walked off the court.
The sophomore guard had his own big steal earlier in the matchup. After the Tar Heels took their second lead of the game, with five minutes remaining before the half, Love poked the ball free. He passed it across the court, which set Davis up for an open 3-pointer.
The play fueled UNC to create an 8-point cushion going into the half.
“This was his (Love’s) best game as a Carolina basketball player,” head coach Hubert Davis said.
While Love led the team in scoring with 21 points and made clutch free throws down the stretch to close out the win, he was a big reason why UNC excelled on the defensive end, where they typically struggle the most.
Bacot asserted himself in the paint and gaining five blocks helped limit a strong Hokie frontcourt to only 11-25 shooting. Along with getting the game-icing steal, Black locked down the perimeter, causing a Virginia Tech team that is second in the country in 3-point field goal percentage to make only five triples in 26 attempts.
“We put our foot on their necks and they couldn’t figure it out,” Love said.
Coming into Saturday’s matchup, North Carolina and Virginia Tech were going in opposite directions.
While the Tar Heels were reeling from a rough loss, the Hokies were riding a six-game win streak into Blacksburg and generated enough hype to draw in a massive crowd. A win for them suddenly puts them in the NCAA Tournament bubble after falling to 10-10 just a few weeks ago.
But UNC broke both those trends by controlling the game with its defense. This was only the sixth game this season they've held an opponent under 60 points. It was the first time they accomplished this on the road, where they had struggled for most of the season, going 5-6 away from Chapel Hill prior to Saturday night.
But North Carolina has one last pattern to end. While it has shown before its ability to win after tough losses, they have struggled to build off of strong wins.
“We have, at times, struggled more when good things happen and when things are going well for us,” Davis said.
If the Tar Heels play with the defensive intensity they showed tonight, maybe they will get the consistency they need to succeed in March.
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