BLACKSBURG, Va. — When North Carolina faced its greatest challenge of the season, desperation seemed to build.
With senior Armando Bacot stationed to the bench with an injury during UNC’s 80-72 loss at Virginia Tech, North Carolina got its first taste of play without the preseason All-American. The void triggered a frantic search to find a new working rotation.
Junior forward Puff Johnson slotted in to complete North Carolina's newest starting lineup — a group that was quickly broken up after junior guard Caleb Love picked up his second foul before the first media stoppage.
With his team in need of an answer, head coach Hubert Davis turned toward the end of his bench midway through the first half. His search led to devising a lineup which included Tyler Nickel, Dontrez Styles and Justin McKoy — three players who had played a combined 49 minutes this season entering Sunday’s contest.
“We had guys out, add in D’Marco (Dunn) who was (second in) leading the team in bench minutes,” Davis said. “It’s always a next man up mentality.”
The reserve-heavy lineup held its own in spurts and even inched the Tar Heels within a single possession in the first half after McKoy cashed in a pair of free throws before being substituted back out. But the Tar Heels’ reeling efforts weren’t solely categorized by trying to find the right lineup.
Graduate wing Leaky Black began the game guarding Sean Pedulla, the Hokies’ leading scorer. When Grant Basile found success inside for Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels’ defensive anchor switched onto the transfer from Wright State — a shift that foreshadowed a game in which Black soon bounced around new assignments at a higher rate.
Stagnant offense and continuous isolation sets saw the Tar Heels string out their offensive possessions late in the shot clock, a tendency UNC knew it needed to change at the break.
“We just had to figure out that we needed to play inside-out and attack the basket,” graduate forward Pete Nance said. “Obviously we went through a couple of lineups but I think we found a group there at the end that was starting to figure some stuff out.”
The group included first-years Seth Trimble and Nickel, who both recorded season-high playing time at 22 and 25 minutes, respectively. The fresh faces served as integral pieces in North Carolina’s full-court press in the second half.
“Just their energy — they’re able to come in with confidence and make the effort plays that were needed,” junior guard RJ Davis said. “Seth (Trimble) stole the ball and he was able to keep it inbounds and Tyler (Nickel) was able to make a couple of tough shots. That was definitely something needed, so I’m very proud of them.”
With the right group in place, North Carolina’s desperation began to pay off.
UNC forced turnovers in the Hokies’ back court which turned into easy layups and North Carolina’s guards started to drive to the basket to attempt higher-chance shots. After trailing by as many as 18 points in the second half, the Tar Heels saw themselves behind by just three with 3:06 remaining.
“In the second half, I just found a group that really worked well together,” Davis said. “I wanted to keep that group in. I thought we were consistently getting good looks on the offensive end and I felt like we were really sound defensively.”
But as with most desperation efforts, North Carolina’s attempt ran out of time.
Pedulla drilled an open 3-pointer with one minute left to stake the dagger in UNC’s comeback bid. Though North Carolina dropped its fourth straight game, Davis said he believes the Tar Heels may have discovered something off their bench as a result of his team’s desperation efforts.
“(Trimble and Nickel) competed,” he said. “Defensively, they competed. It didn’t matter whom they were guarding, that person knew they were there, it was felt. They were doing the things we asked them to do. I thought they were fantastic.”
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