For the second straight season, No. 22 Virginia Tech (15-6) had its ACC Tournament cut short at the hands of North Carolina (18-9) as the Tar Heels used their size to pull out an 81-73 victory.
“This is a hard game, man. This is fast. And it’s big and physical. Lose a bit of sharpness when you go that kind of period. But cannot ask another thing from our Hokie team,” Head Coach Mike Young said. “These guys gave me everything in their tank. We came up against a North Carolina team that’s playing pretty well at the right time.”
Tech was able to stay in it until the 11-minute mark of the second half when the ten-day COVID pause seemed to catch up with the Hokies. Similar to Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech out of their first break, the Hokies began to run out of gas down the stretch.
“It’s just so hard to replicate playing a game in this league. It’s so hard to replicate playing a game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against the North Carolina Tar Heels,” Young said. “It’s difficult. I did spend an inordinate amount of time with our staff, and what more could we do.”
The game was even at 49 with 11 minutes remaining when Keve Aluma leaped towards the rim to block a Garrison Brooks’ lay-up. The athletic feat was wiped away when the whistle blew from across the court, signaling a foul. Over the next five minutes, UNC outscored the Hokies 15-5 and maintained control for the rest of the night.
“A couple of miscues. I thought we still got to our stuff and still got great shots. We hung in there. It wasn’t due to a lack of offense. We simply — we didn’t have enough left to get that defensive stop, three defensive stops in a row, three defensive rebounds in a row.”
The Hokies were able to pull the deficit back within five shortly with under two minutes to go, but two quick threes immediately salted away the game for the Tar Heels. The final dagger came from R.J. Davis, who entered the game averaging under nine points per game. He led Carolina with 19 on Thursday night.
The advantage for Carolina began on the offensive boards as the Heels used their monstrous size to dominate in the paint. In their opening game, the Tar Heels snatched 25 offensive rebounds against Notre Dame and had three players tally double doubles.
Tech clearly prepared for Carolina’s four-headed monster on the block, holding UNC to just two offensive boards in the first half. However, the Tar Heels’ size finally bit the Hokies in the second half as they pulled in 13 offensive rebounds after halftime.
“Boy, we were physical on the glass in the first half, but gosh sakes, they gobbled up — essentially gobbled up what appeared to be every carom in the second half,” Young said. “We’ll be fine with whomever we draw out there. You know, I think we got one out of our system.”
The leader of Carolina’s frontcourt on Thursday night was Richmond-native Armando Bacot, who put up 16 points and 13 rebounds on the night. Bacot was especially unstoppable as UNC went on its big second-half run, at one point scoring ten straight points for the Heels.
“They’ve got a couple five-star big men down there, and they’re able to just bring those guys in at any point in time, so you’ve got to stay ready,” forward Justyn Mutts said. “It was a different kind of game, but I think we had the pieces to handle it, we just weren’t able to get it done today.”
Tech’s top player didn’t have nearly as good of a night as Keve Aluma shot just 4-of-13 from the field, scoring just four points until the final few minutes. Aluma hadn’t scored in single-digits since the Hokies’ loss to Syracuse in mid-January.
“Looked a little spooked, and he’s played against so many really good front-line defenders in our league. He had some looks at it that he’s had all year, and he looked a little hesitant,” Young said. “I’m not sure what to attribute that to. He had good looks from three. I really don’t know how to answer, but I agree with you, he was a little hesitant.”
Tyrece Radford and Mutts were able to pick up the slack with both eclipsing 20 points on the night. Mutts posted a season-high 24 points, looking dominant against the much larger Carolina frontcourt.
“I thought for about 30 minutes of the game we were able to — 30 to 35 minutes of the game, we were able to match their aggressiveness,” Mutts said. “But towards the end, I think fatigue might have set in a little bit at some point. But I’d love to see them again at some point. That was a good game.”
Carolina moves on to face second-seeded Florida State in Friday’s second semifinal while the Hokies will have to wait until Sunday to learn their fate for the NCAA Tournament. Both UNC and Tech were listed as nine seeds by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi entering Thursday’s action. The Hokies’ standing could slide after the loss, but it’s all but guaranteed that they’ll have a game in Indianapolis next weekend.
“We’ll watch 15 minutes of it, some good, some bad, and then Sunday we’ll find out when, where and all that sort of thing as it pertains to Indianapolis,” Young said. “I told them in there, our sadness will be replaced with sheer joy here real soon when I find out what we’re doing on Sunday.”
Due to last year’s tournament being cancelled, a selection on Sunday would be the Hokies’ fourth consecutive appearance in the Big Dance.