Only two things separated the No. 25 UNC men’s basketball team from a berth in the ACC Championship game: six points and 20 minutes.
Not only would they have the chance to win the tournament, but the Tar Heels would face the No. 7 Duke Blue Devils for the third time this season with a chance to break the 1-1 regular season tie.
All North Carolina had to do was overcome a 32-26 deficit in the second half, and it would earn a chance to pad its NCAA Tournament resume even more.
But coming out of halftime on Friday night, the Virginia Tech Hokies had other plans, as they defeated the Tar Heels, 72-59.
North Carolina hadn’t played its best basketball by halftime of Friday’s semifinal game against Virginia Tech, but the six-point deficit was far from insurmountable. The team played a slow-paced defensive battle the night before against Virginia, winning 63-43. Getting into a rhythm and making shots was what the team needed to overcome the six-point hole.
But, the game spiraled downhill.
The Hokies opened the half with authority. In the first possession of the half, Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma earned an and-one opportunity, converting on the free throw. The next trip down, after a UNC turnover, Hunter Cattoor got a good look from outside and knocked it down. And on trip number three, Justyn Mutts hit another 3-pointer to continue a 9-0 run and force UNC head coach Hubert Davis to call a timeout.
“I felt like in the first half, everything was difficult,” Davis said. “Everything was hard and we were all very encouraged about starting the second half and trying to change things around. And it just didn’t happen.”
That run didn’t come without an answer from North Carolina, though.
The Hokie lead eventually got to 20 points after a 3-pointer from Darius Maddox, and it looked as though the lead was insurmountable. The Tar Heels hung around for a stretch, cutting the lead to 11 points thanks to the offense of junior forward Armando Bacot and sophomore guard RJ Davis. Senior forward Leaky Black also showed up on the defensive end.
Just one minute after UNC brought the lead to 11, Maddox earned a four-point play to bring it back up to 17 and fully shift the momentum in Virginia Tech’s favor.
“I gave him a little push, and coming off it, I got a good amount of separation,” Maddox said. “And when I let it go, I knew that it was good.”
North Carolina struggled from the field for the majority of the game. Even with the small halftime margin, shots simply did not fall for the team, as it shot 22-60 from the floor and 3-26 from downtown.
At times, the team got solid opportunities, but could not capitalize.
“Particularly in the first half, I felt like we got good looks from three,” Hubert Davis said. “We just missed them.”
The lone bright spot for the team was its first team all-ACC performer, Bacot. He made nine of his ten shot attempts for 19 points and 14 rebounds, but it was harder for the team to play through him as it did in many games this season.
The Hokies managed to trap him inside and force him to pass out of the post, so despite his steady performance, it did not translate as well for the rest of the team.
“It was more of a unique double team from what I’ve seen,” Bacot said. “Them coming from the baseline, and then they kind of zoned up on the weak side. So early on, a lot of my reads, it kind of threw off my timing on passes.”
Though the team is now out of the ACC Tournament, its play late in the season provides something to build on for the rest of the postseason. UNC won its previous six games — including wins against Duke and Virginia Tech.
The Tar Heels went most of the season on the bubble for the Big Dance, but now can wait on Selection Sunday with hopes that their name will be called.
“I don’t want them to be discouraged, I want them to be encouraged,” Davis said. “I remember that bus ride coming back from Wake Forest, and to think from that point that this group, led by Armando, we’ve won 12 out of 15.”
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