By R.L. Bynum
GREENSBORO — When North Carolina only trailed by three points at halftime after not playing that well and missing the inside scoring punch from the night before, you figured that the Tar Heels would be in good shape if they could just find an offensive groove.
Thanks to the assertive play of RJ Davis and a return of inside dominance, the Tar Heels found it nicely in the second half as Carolina pulled away for an 81–73 victory over Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday night.
Davis scored the most points off the bench for UNC in an ACC Tournament game since Melvin Scott netted 19 against Maryland in the 2003 quarterfinals.
“I just didn’t want to go home,” Davis said. “I didn’t come here to lose. I know Virginia Tech was a great team, so you know, they ran good stuff offensively and defensively, and I just trusted my teammates to find me in good spots and vice versa. We doubled down to the bigs and they double teamed and they kicked it back up to the perimeter guys for us to hit some huge shots down the course of the game.”
The win was Coach Roy Williams’ 903rd career victory to pass Bob Knight on the career list and into third place on the all-time wins list.
“I felt very lucky that we were just down three and told them that if they would change that and get a greater sense of urgency in the second half, stop turning the ball over, that we’d be there at the end and have a chance to win,” Williams said.
Davis scored 14 of his season-high 19 points in the second half with a season-high four 3-pointers, while Armando Bacot scored 13 of his 17 after halftime, pulled down 13 rebounds and had 10 consecutive UNC points in one stretch. Day’Ron Sharpe scored 10 despite battling foul trouble.
No. 6-seed UNC (18–9) faces a well-rested Florida State (15–5) team Friday at 8:30 p.m. in the second semifinal. The double-bye for the No. 2-seed Seminoles became a triple bye when a COVID-19 positive test in the Duke program forced the cancellation of their quarterfinal game with the Blue Devils. The Noles haven’t played since their 83–73 road loss Saturday to Notre Dame.
It’s the only game Friday night after a positive COVID-19 test in the Virginia program forced its semifinal with Georgia Tech to be canceled. The Yellow Jackets will play the UNC-FSU winner in Saturday’s championship game.
The Hokies forced UNC to take tough shots in the first half and weren’t allowing the second shots the Tar Heels got in bunches against Notre Dame the night before. The momentum turned after Kessler made a follow shot for a 3-point play with 13:55 left to give UNC a 45–43 lead as the Tar Heels began creating better shots inside.
“Virginia Tech is really good defensively, and they do a nice job of boxing out,” Williams said. “At halftime, we talked about we had to make an extra effort to get off the box out and had to make an extra effort to get to the offensive board. And I think Armando did that better than anybody.”
The Tar Heels went from two offensive rebounds and eight turnovers in the first half to 13 offensive boards and turning it over only three times in the second half.
“Tonight in the second half, we didn’t have the silly turnovers that ended up being open-court turnovers,” Williams said. “It’s mentally and physically impossible to emphasize taking care of the ball or don’t turn it over. It depends on if you want to be one of those negative/positive guys or not, but it’s impossible to emphasize that more than we have emphasized it. It didn’t work the last four games when we had 80 turnovers, but perhaps it worked a little better the last two nights.”
Davis was a solid part of UNC taking control by creating offense out of its half-court sets, making good shots and smart decisions. He scored six points in 21 seconds on a 3-pointer and a 3-point play to give the Tar Heels a 56–49 lead with 9:46 left.
“They’re good defensively,” Williams said. “But the biggest thing, I thought we needed two ball handlers in there a little more to give us Caleb [Love] some help or RJ some help. And we went more with that lineup.”
Suddenly, the offensive-rebounding prowess returned: follow shots by Sharpe and Bacot, a Bacot dunk, another Bacot follow and then a Bacot drive came in succession. Bacot’s follow shot with 4:54 left shoved the Tar Heels’ lead to 68–58.
Williams clearly must have pressed the right buttons to get the most out of Bacot against the Hokies.
“Coach, he knows how to get under my skin,” Bacot said. “I’d probably say he’s the hardest on me as anybody on the team. I mean, it’s definitely motivating. I get a note and I’m kind of pissed off, but I want to go out there and win, so it’s all good. I know he means good by it, too.”
What exactly does Williams do to get him going?
“I’m telling you, he’s just relentless when it comes to me,” said Bacot, who put up his second double-double in as many nights and seventh of the season. “He’s always riding me every single day. It’s always he’s just at me. He knows how to get me in that mood, and it turns me up, so I had to go out there and go crazy.”
Virginia Tech’s play was so physical in the first half that it took Carolina a while to adjust, said Leaky Black, who ended a streak of 12 consecutive misses from 3-point range and collected eight points and three assists.
“They hit us in the mouth pretty hard in the first half, and it was just win or go home, know what I mean?” Black said. “They emphasized that in the locker room, and I feel like we stepped up pretty big. Armando getting down low and getting the easy baskets inside, offensive rebounding, that gave us a big lift, and it just went from there.”
Black said he’s seen a lot of growth in Davis’ game over the course of the season.
“At the beginning of the year, him and Caleb would get down on themselves for mental stuff and little turnovers and stuff like that,” Black said. “I feel like lately, as soon as he turns the ball over, he’s like, next play. He’s still got that in the back of his mind, but he’s like, next play. You see the maturity growing inside of him, so we’re proud of him.”
Love and Black struggled for much of the season when they both were on the court together but they have developed some good on-court chemistry in recent games.
“I think me and Caleb, we complement each other well. We’re both scoring guards. We both can create our own shots, get our teammates going,” Davis said. “I think for me and him to play with each other, it just has a different flow and better flow towards the game as far as if I’m off, he’ll be on. But if we’re both on, that just helps the team even better.”
Bacot said it was Davis’ aggressiveness that made the difference against the Hokies.
“Yeah, I mean, when he’s aggressive, he’s harder to stop,” Bacot said. “He can shoot it. He’s so quick, small. He can get in different spots easier than a lot of guys with just his size. I mean, his facilitating has been getting a lot better, so he’s been great. He’s just growing.”
The Hokies pulled within five points on a 3-pointer by Nahiem Alleyne with 1:53 left but UNC outscored Virginia Tech 9–6 the rest of the way, leading by as many as 12.
After Brooks sat out Wednesday’s blowout of Notre Dame, he was back and playing tough defense on Keve Aluma, holding the second-team All-ACC forward to nine points on 4 of 9 shooting. Aluma picked up his third foul with 10:50 left. Brooks’ only points were on a jumper at the start of the game.
Justyn Mutts led Virginia Tech with a season-high 24 points and Tyrece Radford added 20.
Virginia Tech came out not looking rusty at all, jumping out to a 9–2 lead in the first 4½ minutes. The Heels came back with a 7–2 run, helped by spunky play from Anthony Harris. Two consecutive Love jumpers gave UNC a 21–18 lead with 8:37 left, but Tech held a 35–32 halftime edge.
After pulling down offensive rebounds in bunches against Notre Dame on Wednesday, the Tar Heels only had two in the first half and didn’t get their first second-chance points until a Sharpe follow with 4:32 left in the first half.
The teams each won at home in the regular season, with the Tar Heels rolling to a 78–70 win in Chapel Hill on Feb. 27 behind 20 points from Walker Kessler.
Tech hadn’t played since blowing out Wake Forest 84–46 on Feb. 27. This was only its third game since Feb. 6.
The Tar Heels are in the ACC Tournament semifinals for the 52nd time and the sixth time in the last seven years.
No. 6 UNC 81, No. 3 Va. Tech 73
Box scores of earlier UNC-FSU games
ACC Tournament bracket
ACC pool photos