updated: 11:59 p.m.
CHAPEL HILL -- Early in Thursday night’s game at the Smith Center, it looked as if the whole “toughness” thing that North Carolina had been touting was a wee bit premature.
Not so, it seems.
For the second straight ACC game, the Tar Heels came back from a double-digit deficit after an ugly first half to pull out a victory – this time, beating Virginia Tech 64-61. In so doing, they broke a six-game winning streak by the Hokies (10-5, 1-2 in the ACC) – who are playing with only eight scholarship players thanks to injuries and a transfer. UNC (12-4, 2-0), meanwhile, has now won eight of its last nine games.
“We’re ecstatic with the win; it was a heck of a second half comeback for us,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Supposedly, you’re only going to age one year in one year’s calendar time. But between Saturday’s game and tonight’s game, I aged about three or four years.”
Indeed, like Saturday’s win at Virginia, the Tar Heels played ugly ball in long stretches, getting down by as many as 16 points in the first half thanks to 37 percent shooting, 11 turnovers (including four in their first five possessions), a 3-for-11 effort from the free throw line and five 3-pointers from Tech guard Malcolm Delaney (28 points). But UNC put together a 9-0 run to end the first half and trailed 31-24 at the break.
“We cut it to seven at the half, and I thought that was great – because I thought it could have been much, much worse, to say the least,’’ Williams said.
UNC systematically chipped in the second half -- and you can debate who made the toughest plays down the stretch.
* Trailing 39-29 with 16:54 left after Delaney’s sixth 3-pointer, there was forward John Henson (17 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks) with a filling-rattling, lead-grabbing dunk that capped a 14-3 comeback – during which the sophomore scored six points and had an assist.
* Trailing 52-50, again, with less than four minutes left, there was freshman Harrison Barnes (12 points), showing for a stretch just why he was named a first-team All-American – hitting a baseline jump shot from one corner, then a 3-pointer from another corner, to give the Tar Heels a 55-52 lead.
* And trailing 56-55, there was junior forward Tyler Zeller (16 points, 9 rebounds), scoring on a goaltend then taking a charge on the other end to put his team ahead, for good.
After Barnes and Zeller bookended a Jeff Allen dunk with buckets to give UNC a 62-58 lead, Delaney kept the sellout crowd’s heart pounding with another 3-pointer, cutting it to 62-61 with 48 seconds left. But after a Zeller miss, Delaney – guarded by UNC freshman point guard Kendall Marshall – missed a 3-pointer.
Marshall (9 points, 9 assists) buried two free throws with 3 seconds left to seal it.
UNC shot 41.3 percent for the game, and finished 7-for-17 from the free throw line. The 16-point comeback was UNC’s largest in a win since March, 2008, at Boston College.
And at thrilled as the Tar Heels were to show their intestinal fortitude, again – they’d rather win in an easier fashion next time around.
"It's toughness, but you don't need to show toughness every game, come back from 16 down," Henson said. "We need to put two halves together."