UNC's Harrison Barnes dunks over the Virginia Tech defense in the first half at Cassell Coliseum. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
BLACKSBURG, Va. — His team down by five at halftime at Virginia Tech on Thursday night, North Carolina coach Roy Williams walked into the Tar Heels locker room and told his players to stop pouting. They’d suffered a 33-point loss at Florida State just days before and now they were losing again.
Williams wrote words on a board: “Poise. Toughness. Confidence.”
“I challenged them,” he said. “I said don’t be giving me and woe-be’s, don’t be giving me any feel sorry for yourselves. Let’s play. I wasn’t going to feel sorry for us at all.”
No. 8 UNC (16-3, 3-1) folded in the second half of that loss against the Seminoles on Saturday. Here on Thursday night, though, the Heels used a 19-0 second-half run to fuel an 82-68 victory against the Hokies (11-7, 0-4).
Harrison Barnes, the sophomore forward, scored 21 of his game-high 27 points in the second half. He scored eight of UNC’s first 10 points in that decisive 19-0 run, which began after Virginia Tech had expanded its lead to eight with 18:45 to play.
At about the same moment of the game in the meltdown in Tallahassee, Fla., on Saturday, UNC appeared deflated and defeated. This time, though, the Tar Heels showed their resolve.
“I think at halftime when we sat in the locker room, we kind of had like a moment of truth,” said UNC forward John Henson, who finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds. “You know – what kind of team we wanted to be … and we came out in the second half with the fire we needed to have the whole season.”
Intensity and energy – and having the necessary quantities of both – have been problem points for the Heels. But they weren’t during the past few days.
The Heels began the week with a productive practice on Monday that carried over to the team’s other practices leading into Thursday night. Asked whether it’d be fair to say that UNC had its best week of practice this season, Williams said, “It wouldn’t be fair. It’d be the [dang] truth.”
It had been a hard week, filled with long, hard days. That 33-point loss at FSU was the worst of Williams’ nine seasons as UNC’s head coach.
“The past couple of days have been a little tough,” UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said. “But I think it’s what we needed. I won’t say the loss is what we needed. But the message that [Williams] got across to us in the past few days of practice is definitely what we needed.”
Williams said his team “probably” played its best half of the season in the final 20 minutes against Virginia Tech. During that stretch, the Tar Heels outscored the Hokies 48-29 and held scoreless Virginia Tech guard Dorenzo Hudson, who had 16 points and four 3-pointers during the first half.
After the Hokies’ guard Erick Green made a 3 with 18:45 to play, the Heels were down eight and the crowd at Cassell Coliseum was on its feet and at its loudest. But Barnes made a pair of free throws, and then a jump shot after Hokies turnover. After a missed shot, Barnes drove the lane and finished with a one-handed dunk.
The run was on.
“I could definitely feel the momentum kind of shifting our way,” Barnes said. “Jump shot. Dunk. Those are momentum-changing plays.”
The news wasn’t all good for UNC. Junior guard Dexter Strickland suffered a right knee injury and left the game in pain with 16:44 to play. He could walk on his own afterward, but he described his knee as “sore.” He will undergo an MRI today.
Outside of Strickland’s injury, though, the Tar Heels mostly accomplished what they wanted. They snapped a three-game losing streak away from the Smith Center, and responded from a loss against FSU that called into question the Heels’ toughness.
“We played a great 20 minutes tonight,” said senior forward Tyler Zeller, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “Hopefully we can get that up to 40 minutes. And I think we’ll be tough to beat if we can do that."