By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — How a team responds to a devastating defeat is a good test of its character, resolve and resilience.
No. 19 North Carolina was off the charts in all three categories Sunday night against a good Virginia Tech team. The Tar Heels (14–1, 4–1 ACC) used an 18–2 first-half run to take control, led by as many as 32 points and rolled to a 71–46 victory at Carmichael Arena to snap a three-game home losing streak against the Hokies.
It was Carolina’s ninth victory by at least 25 points.
This was more like the team that UNC Coach Courtney Banghart saw in the first 13 games of the season.
“We talked before the game about how we wanted this to be returned to us,” Banghart said. “You want every step to be forward. And that’s just not always the way it works. You have to take a step backward and that was a step backward that we had to endure. But we didn’t let it waver in who we are and what we do. And our guys showed it tonight, they just beat a really good team pretty convincingly by playing both ends really solidly together.”
In Friday’s practice, Banghart’s staff put the team through a “pretty hefty” film session and concentrated on offense because she said it was so stagnant against N.C. State. The team focused on defense in Saturday’s practice.
“Practices were high intensity,” said graduate guard Eva Hodgson, who scored a game-high 19 points in her best scoring game as a Tar Heel. “We knew Thursday was not a representation of who we are as a team. We were a little shell-shocked from the fans, from the environment.
“We’ve learned from that and we’ll grow through that,” Hodgson said. “Every single game is an opportunity to get better as a whole and we showed tonight that we can compete with the best in the league.”
After sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby’s transition layup shoved the lead to 22 in the first four minutes of the second half, Deja Kelly stood at midcourt with her teammates.
Kelly, who put up her first career double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds), yelled emphatically while looking upward as if the bad taste of Thursday’s 27-point loss at No. 5 N.C. State was gone.
Hodgson did what she could to shoot away those bad memories. After going 1 of 7 from 3-point range against the Wolfpack, she notched a season-high four 3-pointers.
“It was so much fun after Thursday night’s game,” said Hodgson, whose career-high is 34 points for William & Mary against Elon. “It didn’t sit well with anyone on our team. It’s not how you want to play against a ranked team. But we learned from it. We watched a lot of film. We attacked practice. We just executed what we knew we needed to and it was a lot of fun.”
Banghart said that Hodgson’s points only begin to tell the story of her impact on the UNC team.
“There’s a lot of things I love about her,” Banghart said. “She has this mentality that is really charismatic. She’s got this toughness. She has this willingness to win and she works for it. She wills the team along. So, as much as her numbers spoke for themselves, her impact on this team is even bigger.”
Ustby had another good all-around game with 13 points, six rebounds and a career-high-tying six assists, and Anya Poole produced a big bounce-back game with 12 points and eight rebounds.
After little went right Thursday, it all came together against the Hokies (11–4, 3–1), who boast one of the league’s best centers in 6–6 junior Elizabeth Kitley and the second-best 3-point shooting team in the league.
Carolina did a good job of limiting those offensive weapons.
Poole had a rough game against Elissa Cunane but held her own against Kitley, finishing with 12 points and eight rebounds. Two games after Kitley scored 27 points in a blowout of Duke, Carolina held her to 14.
“I did not perform to my best ability on Thursday,” Poole said. “I don’t know if it was a mixture of nerves or the crowd. I’ve never played in an environment like that because of the whole COVID thing. So, I think I fell to the mentality of ‘this team is better than us.’ ”
“But when we work as a team, it’s gonna be hard to beat us,” Poole said. “Just knowing and remembering everything that the coaches told us, defensively we were all connected. I just stayed to the game plan. I didn’t try to go out on a limb and try to play one-on-one or whatever, or try to do something differently than what my coaches told me.”
It was only Poole’s second victory over Kitley. Kitley’s Northwest Guilford High School beat Poole’s Southeast Raleigh High School both times they met and the Hokies won two of three meetings last season.
“I love her game,” Poole said. “She gets better every single time we play her. It’s a challenge. I respect everything about her game.”
A Hokies team that came into the game shooting 37.4% from 3-point range missed its first 16 attempts. Even in Tech’s previous losses, it was averaging 8.6 3-pointers. Sunday, the Hokies were 4 of 25.
“A step backwards can sometimes be a part of the process that you need,” Banghart said. “Because our guys were back to being their active selves defensively. But part of it was the game plan for Kitley and then activity to take away the arc.”
For the 10th time in 15 games this season, a UNC opponent had fewer field goals (18) than turnovers (21). It was also the 10th time an opponent has been held to fewer than 50 points, the most since the 2006–07 season. The Carolina defense was back to its usual intensity and that helped the Tar Heels outscore the Hokies on fast-break points 16–0.
“We rebounded the ball, and that allowed us to get out and run,” Banghart said. “And this is a hard team to guard in transition because they’re willing to run, and they’re willing to run fast. And so when you put the transition game into ball movement in the quarter court, we’re just a hard team to guard and really the one game [the ball] stuck was our worst game and we’re going to keep working on making that ball move.”
UNC got off to another slow shooting start, missing six of its first 10 shots before a Hodgson 3-pointer gave the Heels an 11–8 lead with 2:57 left in the first quarter.
Kelly started an 18–2 run with a 3-pointer with 1:16 left in the first quarter. Kelly scored eight points during that run, which Hodgson capped with a transition layup to push UNC’s lead to 27–12 in the first four minutes of the second quarter.
The Tar Heels led 35–17 at halftime after holding the Hokies to 25% shooting. UNC was up by as many as 32 points in the third quarter before taking a 53–28 edge into the final quarter.
It was UNC’s first home win over the Hokies since a 71–67 triumph on Feb. 11, 2016.
The Tar Heels get a week off before they are scheduled to visit No. 20 Notre Dame at 1 p.m. next Sunday (regional sports networks). The Irish (11–3, 2–1) had their scheduled Sunday home game with N.C. State postponed because of COVID-19 protocols in their program, though, so it’s possible UNC might face a different league opponent next weekend or have the weekend off.
No. 19 UNC 71, Va. Tech 46
UNC season statistics
day, time, TV
|9||92–47 win, 1–0||Home||N.C. A&T|
|14||89–33 win, 2–0||Road||Charlotte|
|17||89–44 win, 3–0||Home||Appalachian State|
|21||79–46 win, 4–0||Road||TCU|
|26||72–59 win, 5–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — VCU|
|27||58–37 win, 6–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — Washington|
(6–0, 2–0 ACC)
|1||82–76 win, 7–0||Road||Y — Minnesota|
|5||93–47 win, 8–0||Home||James Madison|
|12||107–46 win, 9–0||Home||UNC Asheville|
|19||76–63 win, |
10–0, 1–0 ACC
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, |
12–0, 2–0 ACC
(2–1, 2–1 ACC)
|2||81–62 win, |
13–0, 3–0 ACC
|6||72–45 loss, |
13–1, 3–1 ACC
|Road||No. 5 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, |
14–1, 4–1 ACC
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||No. 20 Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||No. 16 Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||No. 17 Duke|
|30||Sunday, noon or 4, ESPN or ACCN||Home||No. 5 N.C. State|
|3||Thursday, 8, RSN||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Home||Miami|
|10||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||Sunday, 1, ACCNX||Road||Virginia Tech|
|17||Thursday, 6, RSN||Home||No. 3 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||No. 17 Duke|
RSN — regional sports networks; X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications