Entering Saturday afternoon’s XXL contest in Cassell Coliseum, Virginia Tech ranked second in Division I in offensive 3-point percentage. Its opponent, North Carolina, was No. 279 in defending the long ball.
Yet, for the second time this season, the Hokies struggled from deep against the Tar Heels. Two games, 12-of-44 (27%) from behind the arc. And for the second time, Virginia Tech fell to UNC, this time 65-57.
In a crucial game regarding the NCAA Tournament bubble, Tech couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The shots weren’t all highly contested, either, which adds to the frustration. But a season-low 19.2% (5-of-26) from long range doomed the Hokies against North Carolina, and it might come back to haunt them come March.
“I thought we got great shot after great shot,” Tech head coach Mike Young said after the loss. “If we were going to go out and play it again and throw the thing in the air, I would take the same shot. We’ve been so free and so… impressive offensively, but we had a tough night.”
Virginia Tech (16-11, 8-8 ACC) had the right formula against North Carolina (19-8, 11-5). Don’t let Hubert Davis & Co. dominate the glass, keep them off the free throw line, and stop them in transition.
The rebounding margin: 38-31, and VT had nine offensive boards to UNC’s five. Carolina was 5-of-7 from the charity stripe until it went 8-for-8 in the final 60 seconds when the Hokies had to foul. And fast break points? 13-0 in favor of the Tar Heels, but only two points came in the second half.
“They had one first half offensive rebound,” Young said. “I thought we were really, really good there. Guards helped us and down on [Armando] Bacot and [Brady] Manek. We altered some matchups with Manek because he’s going to ball screen and pop out of that thing. We could get Aluma or Mutts on him.
“I thought we did a very good job there. … But not quite good enough.”
Down the stretch, Tech’s defense was very solid. Not quite superb – allowing an Bacot second chance basket that led UNC run away with it wasn’t good – but the Tar Heels only scored 17 points (8-of-22) from the floor in the second half.
But the door didn’t stay open for forever. Eventually, Carolina slammed it in Tech’s face. The Hokies had a 11-2 run from 14:16 to 7:12, just over seven minutes. During that stretch, UNC missed seven straight shots and turned the ball over five times.
However, Tech couldn’t take advantage. It made 5-of-12 (41.7%) attempts, which isn’t poor. Just not enough against this North Carolina team, one that pulled away soon after and got a badly-needed Quadrant 1 win.
“We’re getting great shots, we’re taking great shots, we’ve got really good offensive players,” Young said. “I am not discouraging anything. Maybe another ball reversal. I thought we had a couple of quick ones, but I thought all-in-all, we were taking shots from people we want taking shots, we just couldn’t get’em down.
“Some were pretty well guarded, some were wide open and we just missed them. We just missed them.”
Keve Aluma led Tech with 16 points and nine rebounds, while Justyn Mutts added ten and five. Aluma was the only Tech player to make more than one 3-pointer, and Hunter Cattoor (five points) and Nahiem Alleyne (nine) both finished 1-of-6 from distance.
All eight players who touched the floor scored for the Hokies, and as Alleyne put it post-game, UNC didn’t really stifle them on that end of the floor. It came down to them making open shots – something this team usually is good at – and they didn’t.
While Tech was poor from behind the arc, North Carolina was just a few shots better: 36%, (8-of-22), marginally below its season average of 38%. The difference, though, was in the first half. VT: 2-of-12. UNC: 7-of-15.
That helped the Tar Heels retake the lead with 5:06 remaining before halftime, and they never trailed again. The Hokies slowed them down in the final 20 minutes – Alleyne said that’s the kind of defensive effort they need to start off games – but it wasn’t enough.
In regards to the NCAA Tournament, the loss leaves Virginia Tech on the outside looking in. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had Tech nine spots away from being in the Big Dance, but a loss is a momentum killer.
It’s difficult to win one game in the ACC, let alone six in a row like the Hokies did. Their progression from 0-4 to 2-7 to 8-7 (and now 8-8) has been remarkable. During that stretch, they looked like the team many had expected at the beginning of the year.
But a seventh victory in a row would’ve been sweet, especially in front of a sold out Cassell Coliseum. It would’ve given Tech an important boost ahead of the final stretch of games, but now NCAA Tournament chances appear to be slim-to-none.
Miami on Saturday, Feb. 26 is still a Quadrant 1 opportunity, and the Hokies will see the likes of Louisville and Clemson for the first time this season over the next few weeks. But all Young and his team can do is win games and hope they have a little bit of luck on their side, starting on Wednesday at Georgia Tech.
“You know, sometimes in this thing, sometimes in athletics, you walk out of the building scratching your head, and this was one of those evenings for me.”