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UNC 75 Virginia Tech 70: Heels Show Toughness Again

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Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

This about sums it up.

Needless to say UNC is in the midst of a tough stretch. The offensive prowess on display earlier in the season seems to come now in starts and fits. Marcus Paige, who generally shows up for at least the second half of games, has made just one three pointer in his last 22 attempts over a four game span. Justin Jackson has flashes but  consistency continues to be elusive for him. At present the Tar Heels are riding Brice Johnson and Joel Berry with spot work from Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks. It hasn't been ideal but it has worked though not without out some chewed fingernails from fans.

This team is at a different place than it was a year ago. Last season's team was capable of staking big leads and playing well but also given to monumental collapses. The loss at Northern Iowa made it seem like those issues would again be an issue. That thinking lasted all of three days as a rally against Kansas State in a de facto road game for an 80-70 win showed toughness that wasn't there a year ago.

That toughness showed up again in a toe-to-toe battle with top ten Maryland at home.  The Texas loss was a setback but in ACC play, UNC has found itself in second half tussles with almost every opponent except for Wake Forest. In six games against Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Syracuse and NC State, UNC needed to figure out how to win. In every case they did.

In getting to 4-0, the offense was overpowering. Against Clemson it was five players in double figures, versus Georgia Tech it was six. In beating Florida State, Brice Johnson had 39 and Marcus Paige had 30 while at Syracuse, Johnson and Isaiah Hicks combined for 37 points. UNC had plenty of offense to handle any second half battle it faced.

After a torrid start to the ACC schedule offensively, UNC has struggled. UNC found itself in a tied game versus NC State at halftime and got just 15 points from Paige, Johnson and Jackson. Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry stepped in to pick up the slack. Against Wake Forest it was more of the same with Berry scoring 11 and Johnson going for 27 points. UNC's depth was evident and the Tar Heels showed the ability to weather offensive droughts by key personnel.

On a Sunday afternoon in Blacksburg, UNC's ability to muster enough offense to find a way to win was severely tested. After getting early offense from Paige and Jackson, both disappeared for the most part. Jackson ended up in foul trouble and fouling out. Paige not only failed to make a three for a third straight game he was riddle by questionable decisions and terrible turnovers. Missing shots was out of character enough but Paige's decisions, especially on UNC's final full offensive possession leading by four showed how deep the senior guard's struggles had reached.

What makes UNC different this season versus last when these types of games slipped away is even with one or more players struggling, the Tar Heels find ways to make plays. Paige, for all his struggles, had the assist on the Johnson layup that tied the game again after the Hokies took a second half lead. Berry lost control of the ball and with the shot clock running down drilled a three to put the Tar Heels up three. Johnson, best known for his offense, made two straight defensive plays including a steal off an inbounds pass with the game tied. And at the end it was Paige who went to the free throw line to make two to extend the lead to two possessions and effectively seal the game.

UNC did plenty of things right early in this game followed by a whole lot of wrong. Dropping a 20 point lead on the road is concerning but that concern is abated by how the Tar Heels responded to the situation. With everything seemingly headed in the wrong direction, UNC made plays and got a very valuable ACC road win.