The Tar Heels blow a 20 point first half lead, trail by two in the second half before finding a way to grab a tough road win 75-70 over Virginia Tech.
It was all going so well.
UNC looked dominant at the outset and got early offense from both Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson. The two had five points each to pace UNC to an 11-5 lead. From there UNC used a dominant performance on the glass and balanced scoring to slowly extend the lead. The Tar Heel lead reached 36-16 on a Joel Berry layup with 5:50 left in the first half.
The Tar Heel control of the game slowly began to erode thanks in large part to interior foul trouble. Brice Johnson picked up his second foul at the 13:16 mark. Isaiah Hicks followed with his second at 6:12 and Kennedy Meeks his second at 5:33. With UNC up 20 and the three primary big men in foul trouble, Roy Williams gambled with a small line and Luke Maye at the five. The results were....less than ideal. The three point shoot continued to be almost non-existent outside of Joel Berry and UNC had no means of compensating for the absence of post offense. Virginia Tech closed the half with an 18-3 run to cut the Tar Heel to 39-34 at the break.
Now UNC was in a battle as Marcus Paige's struggles became more alarming. Not only was Paige unable to make open shots but he was troubled by turnovers and missed free throws. Still UNC maintained nominal control after the Hokies cut the lead to one at 44-43 early in the second half. Eleven of UNC's next 13 points came on the interior and a Nate Britt jumper made the Tar Heel lead eight points near the midway point through the half.
The Hokies came storming back with the help of a six point possession. As Virginia Tech's Jalen Hudson was making a three, Britt was called for a pushing foul giving possession back to the Hokies. Zach LeDay hit a second three to cut the lead to two. Back-to-back layups from Kerry Blackshear capped off a 12-2 run and gave Virginia Tech its first lead of the game.
The lead didn't last long. Paige changed his mind in midair on a jumper and found Johnson at the basket for a layup. Following a defensive stop, Berry put up a desperation three at the end of the shot clock to put UNC up 64-61. Virginia Tech tied the game again at 68-68 and had the ball out of bounds with three seconds left on the shot clock. Johnson tipped the pass and recovered the ball. He was fouled and put the Tar Heels up for good with a pair of free throws. Johnson then forced a jumpball and Jackson's layup on the backdoor cut put the Tar Heels ahead by four.
UNC managed to overcome a bizarre Paige turnover and a Jackson foul that allowed the Hokies to cut the lead to two at the free throw line. Despite struggling in almost every aspect of the game Paige stepped to the line with 17 seconds left and drilled a pair of free throws to put the Tar Heels up two possessions. A defensive breakdown gave Virginia Tech's best three point shooter, Justin Bibbs, an open look but the shot rimmed out.
Brice Johnson led UNC with 19 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. He also made two key defensive plays with a tip of the Hokie inbounds pass and a force jump ball. Joel Berry was the only other Tar Heel in double figures with 13 points despite shooting just 5-17 and 3-11 from three. Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson combined for 16 points with 10 of those coming in the first four minutes of the game. Nate Britt had eight points off the bench while Kennedy Meeks scored seven to go with seven rebounds.
UNC moves to 18-2 overall and 7-0 in the ACC with Boston College coming to Chapel Hill on Saturday.