BLACKSBURG, Va.— In its first conference game of the year, the No. 18 North Carolina (5-4, 0-1 ACC) fell to the Virginia Tech Hokies (8-1, 1-0 ACC), 80-72, Sunday afternoon at Cassell Coliseum.
The Hokies quickly responded to an early punch after North Carolina opened up a three-point lead. Senior guard Hunter Cattoor’s 3-point basket and a transition floater from graduate forward Grant Basile helped Virginia Tech take a 9-5 lead at the first media timeout.
Sophomore guard Caleb Love picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game, prompting head coach Hubert Davis to reel out a mixture of lineups off the bench. Over the next eight minutes of play, multiple reserves saw extended minutes, including forwards Tyler Nickel, Dontrez Styles and Justin McKoy.
For part of the bench mob's spurt, the Tar Heels weathered the Hokie Storm as a pair of McKoy free throws cut Virginia Tech’s lead to three. But the Hokies would answer back with a run of their own, capped by senior forward Justyn Mutts’ putback layup which gave the home team a 22-13 lead.
A transition dunk by first-year guard MJ Collins would give the Hokies their largest lead of the game — at 12 points — with 1:29 remaining in the first half. North Carolina would claw its way back within 10 heading into the break, thanks to a Pete Nance made jumper.
Out of the stoppage, the Hokies turned to their preseason All-ACC honoree. Mutts flashed his multi-level scoring abilities, as he converted a pair of drives with layups and canned a 3-pointer from straight away to extend Virginia Tech's lead to 16 points.
North Carolina showed life late in the second half. With 4:55 remaining in the game, the Tar Heels trimmed its deficit to seven points. A newfound defensive intensity and the willingness to drive to the basket helped UNC show a heartbeat.
North Carolina would continue to chip away into the Hokies’ lead, as a Love layup would inch the Tar Heels within three points. But Sean Pedulla’s bucket from distance put the dagger in UNC’s comeback bid, and Virginia Tech prevailed 0-0.
Who stood out?
Mutts was the difference maker for Virginia Tech, as the senior’s ability to take opposing forwards off the dribble helped him expose the Tar Heels all afternoon. The Millville, N.J. native finished with a game-high 27 points and 11 rebounds and was nearly unstoppable in the second half.
After the Hokies started out the game stagnant on offense, Cattoor got Virginia Tech rolling. The senior guard finished the first half with 13 points and swished three buckets from behind the arc.
When was it decided?
North Carolina was able to take an early lead and UNC’s two assists appeared to suggest a new offensive mindset for North Carolina.
But as quick as the Tar Heels hinted at their improved offense flow, North Carolina’s play on both ends went cold. Whether it was Cattoor’s efficiency in the first half, or Mutts’ impact throughout the contest, the Hokies held a double-digit advantage for a large portion of the game.
Why does it matter?
With the defeat, the Tar Heels extend their current losing streak to four games.
The loss also highlighted a further issue within North Carolina's offense — the inability to get quality looks. Although UNC showcased more ball movement around the horn, the Tar Heels still found themselves settling for high-difficulty looks, mostly in insolation sets. With UNC entering the heart of the regular season schedule in the coming weeks, it will need to find a cohesion and identity on the offensive side that’s been absent all season.
When do they play next?
North Carolina returns home to take on Georgia Tech on Saturday. The Tar Heels’ second conference game is set to tipoff at 3:15 p.m.
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