The No. 25 Tar Heels earned their first ACC Tournament win Thursday with one critical skill — shutting down their opponent early.
Fresh off an electric 94-81 victory over Duke, North Carolina entered its first tournament game against the Virginia Cavaliers with the momentum to make a run.
But despite a positive start, securing the win was far from easy.
North Carolina's 63-43 defeat of the Cavaliers was a grind, but the team set the tone in the opening 20 minutes.
The Tar Heels forced Virginia into difficult shots throughout the game, holding the Cavaliers to 5-27 shooting and six turnovers in the first half of the game.
The Cavaliers scored an abysmal 13 points in the first half, the team’s lowest first half score in the shot-clock era.
“I feel like our physicality from the beginning and and our intensity really just took them out of their flow,” senior forward Leaky Black said. “They’re a rhythm team, the offense they run, so I feel like our physicality with them really made them struggle.”
Virginia is not a high scoring team to begin with. Tony Bennett’s squad came into the game averaging just 63.2 points per game. In their 51-50 win against Louisville on Wednesday, the Cavaliers didn’t even make a 3-pointer.
But on Thursday, North Carolina did not exactly light it up from the field either.
The team shot just 38.5 percent from the field and made just six of its 23 3-point attempts. However, UNC managed to overcome the stout Virginia defense and play a steady brand of ball throughout. The team recorded 17 assists on its 25 field goals and turned it over only seven times.
For the first half, it was the offensive production of forward Brady Manek that greatly lifted the Tar Heels. He scored 19 of his 21 in the period.
“A lot of my shots don’t come from what I do, it’s from what everybody else does for me,” Manek said. “Having guys on the floor who are also threats gives me more space, more time and more chances to be open.”
Manek’s stellar play was all the Tar Heels needed to come out swinging, as the graduate transfer outscored the Cavaliers by himself in the first half. Sophomore guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis also helped UNC control the pace of the game early on, as the two combined for seven assists in the first half.
Later in the game, other UNC players got a bit of production in the scoring column. Junior forward Armando Bacot scored just two points in the first half, but finished the night with 10 points and 11 rebounds for his school-record 24th double-double of the season.
The team’s reserves also managed to come in earlier than normal in the second half, with the game sitting out of reach for Virginia.
“If we can play defense, if we can rebound the basketball and also limit our turnovers, it puts us in a good position out there on the floor and it takes care of the offense," head coach Hubert Davis said.
In a way, the Tar Heels gave the Cavaliers a taste of their own medicine. The gritty, methodical brand of basketball that they play has been a staple since early in Bennett’s tenure with the team. Prior to this season, Virginia defeated North Carolina in seven consecutive games. In the first game of this streak, UNC’s 2017 national championship team was held to just 43 points.
The Tar Heels managed to get off the schneid against the Cavaliers this season, serving a two-game sweep with its tournament win on Thursday and its 74-58 regular season win.
Now, UNC looks to sweep yet another ACC foe: the Virginia Tech Hokies.
North Carolina won both matchups against the Hokies this season, and will face the seventh-seeded Hokies on Friday. Having defeated the second-seeded Notre Dame, the Hokies are entering the UNC matchup with a big win under their belt.
“They’re just a very difficult team to match up with,” Hubert Davis said. “The two games that we played them, one in Chapel Hill and the other one in Blacksburg, were highly-contested and very competitive, and it’ll be another great matchup tomorrow night.”
The key for the Tar Heels, though, is to get off to the start that they did against Virginia to secure a berth in the ACC championship game.
“We need to play hard and we need to win,” Manek said. “Coming into that game, we knew we’d come out, punch them first, play harder, play tougher. That was going to be the result.
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