With Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker on the bench for much of the first half with foul trouble, No. 10 Virginia Tech lost an early lead and then lost the game to No. 11 North Carolina 103-82 in Chapel Hill on Monday night. The Hokies dropped to 15-3 overall and 4-2 in the ACC, while the Tar Heels improved to 15-4 and 5-1. (ACC Standings-click here)
The Hokies got off to a hot start and jumped out to a 22-13 lead by making six of their first seven three-point attempts. UNC turned up the pressure and began to play better defensively, but the key point came when star guards Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexadner-Walker – Tech’s two best ball handlers, passers and all-around players – went to the bench with foul trouble.
With 10:48 remaining in the first half and the Hokies leading 22-16, Alexander-Walker picked up his second foul, and Buzz Williams took him out of the game. Less than 20 seconds later, Justin Robinson picked up his second foul, and Williams elected to keep him in the game, knowing that his team couldn’t compete with UNC with those two players on the bench.
However, the strategy backfired, and Robinson was quickly whistled for his third foul, an offensive foul, with 9:52 remaining. It was a tough call, and a UNC player actually reached in and grabbed Robinson’s arm before the charge, but it was three fouls nonetheless. Robinson spent the final 10 minutes of the half on the bench next to Alexander-Walker. Alexander-Walker later returned to the game at the 2:03 mark of the first half, but quickly committed his third foul and returned to the bench.
With those two players not on the court, the rest of the half deteriorated into a turnover fest for the Hokies. Tech committed seven of their 16 turnovers over the final 10 minutes of the half, and at one point the Tar Heels went on a 20-0 run to take a commanding 45-31 lead into the halftime intermission. Robinson and Alexander-Walker returned in the second half and played all 20 minutes, but partly as a result of their foul trouble and partly because of good play by UNC, they struggled to be effective on the defensive end.
When Robinson left the game with 9:52 remaining in the first half, Virginia Tech was leading 22-18. UNC closed the half on a 27-9 run.
With the game no longer in doubt for much of the second half, things turned into an offensive shootout, with neither team putting forth maximum effort on the defensive end. UNC outscored Tech 58-51 over the final 20 minutes. UNC was 36-of-67 (53.7%) from the field and 16-of-34 (47.1%) from three-point range for the game, but in the second half they were 20-of-33 (60.61%) from the field and 9-of-13 (69.23%) from the outside.
Perhaps the biggest turnaround of the night for UNC was senior forward Luke Maye. He came into the game in a bad shooting slump, and was just 31.3% from the outside this year. However, he was 4-of-5 from three-point range against the Hokies.
Foul trouble for Robinson and Alexander-Walker marred a great performance by Kerry Blackshear, who had 19 points, a career-high 17 rebounds, and five assists. He made all seven of his free throw attempts, and came away with a whopping 10 offensive rebounds against a talented UNC frontcourt.
Ahmed Hill led Tech in scoring with 20 points. He was 7-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range. Nickeil Alexander-Walker had 19 points, three assists and three steals despite the foul trouble. He was 7-of-14 from the field and 5-of-10 from three-point range. Justin Robinson had 17 points and six assists, but played just 29 minutes.
The Hokies played Monday night’s game without sophomore forward PJ Horne, who was out with a knee injury. As a result, Kerry Blackshear played 37 minutes and may have played 40 were it not for him picking up his fourth foul in the second half.
Virginia Tech returns to action this Saturday when they host Syracuse in Cassell Coliseum. Tipoff is scheduled for 8pm, and the game will be televised by ESPN.