From the opening tip, North Carolina outplayed Virginia Tech, winning 78-56 in front of a Carolina Blue crowd in the Greensboro Coliseum.
UNC took over after Tech scored the first four points of the game, scoring the next 12. They never trailed again.
“You've got to score the basketball,” Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said after his club made 18 of 62 shots (29%). “You put so much pressure on your defense when you don't score it. At some point, the levee breaks and you got a problem against a more explosive North Carolina team.”
Tech cut Carolina’s lead to as little as three in the first half but could not inch any closer, as buckets from Amando Bacot and Cole Anthony gave the Heels a 32-26 halftime lead.
Carolina limited Tech to just nine made field goals on 31 attempts in the first half, not allowing Mike Young’s bunch a chance to claw their way back to the lead.
Tech hung around and had momentum heading into the break, though their shooting woes continued in the second half thanks to stern defense from the Tar Heels.
“After the first five or six minutes of the second half, I thought our defense got a lot better,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “We fouled one of the three-point attempts, which we don't like to do, but I thought our defense was better.”
As Tech made just nine of 31 shots from the field in both halves, North Carolina stretched their lead to as many as 25 and ran away with it in Greensboro. Freshman Hunter Cattoor was the leading scorer for Tech, finishing with 14 points on 5-11 shooting.
The Heels shot 54.8% in the second half and received a large boost from Brandon Robinson, who hit five of six three-point shots.
“Brandon Robinson, we knew coming into the game he was a great shooter, and we gave them some wide-open opportunities,” Tech freshman guard Jalen Cone said. “When he hit those shots [back to back threes], he definitely got the arena into it, and he gave their team a lot of energy and momentum. I think at that moment we should have shut his water off and not let him hit any more, but we failed to do so, and they kept knocking down shots.”
Robinson finished with 17 points for the Tar Heels, second only behind Second Team All-ACC selection Garrison Brooks’ 20. They were two of four Carolina players in double figures, joined by Armando Bacot (12 points) and Cole Anthony (ten points).
In the first meeting, Tech defeated the Tar Heels 79-77 in double overtime.
UNC was without Anthony and Robinson in that matchup due to injury. Those two were the difference on Tuesday.
“The game was a lot faster,” Cone said. “They play faster with Cole on the floor. On our make and miss shots, he's getting the ball at the three-point line and pushing it full speed. … Last game, they really didn't have much transition, but this game they had a lot more with him on the floor and Brandon Robinson shooting the ball well, running the lane lines.”
The win extends Carolina’s season to Wednesday, where they’ll face Syracuse at 9 p.m.
For Tech, the loss most likely puts an end on Mike Young’s inaugural season.
Fellow scribe David Teel asked Young about his assessment from his first season in Blacksburg, mentioning that the Hokies are the youngest and smallest team in the ACC.
“You know what, pretty damned good,” Young replied. “7-13 is never going to be good enough in Blacksburg, nor should it be. 16-16 is never going to be good enough in Blacksburg, nor should it be. But to cobble that together and do so with some really quality people and scrap and claw and some great moments, some not-so-great moments. … Things are in place. The foundation is in place.”
45 of the 56 points from Tech on Tuesday were scored by freshman, the latest example of how young this team was this season.
Mike Young’s top four scorers this season were all true or redshirt freshman – Landers Nolley, Tyrece Radford, Nahiem Alleyne and Jalen Cone. With the Hokies losing just graduate senior Branden Johnson, Tech could have all of their contributors back for year No. 2 of the Young regime.
“All of those experiences – I go back to Maui, Michigan State and playing that terrific Dayton team – all of these experiences that we have had throughout the year will benefit us greatly,” Young said. “I thought they acquitted themselves quite nicely throughout the year, I really did.”
Though very unlikely, Tech will hold out hope to hear their name called in the NIT selection show on Sunday, March 15.
Should their name not be called, the Hokies will finish the season with a 16-16 record, 7-13 in conference and head into year number two with higher expectations.
“I think we’re going to be just fine next year,” Cone said. “I think next year, we’re going to have a good shot at the Big Dance.”