For the fourth straight time, the Tar Heels walked on a basketball court and got beat, as they lost their ACC opener 80-72 in Blacksburg. Carolina entered the game short-handed as they lost D’Marco for several weeks with a broken left hand, and Armando Bacot dressed but didn;t play, after bruising his shoulder in Indiana on Wednesday. That forced a starting lineup of Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, Leaky Black, Puff Johnson, and Pete Nance, a group that hasn’t had much run all season long. It also gave Hubert Davis no choice but to play his bench, and he did, as Seth Trimble played 23 minutes, and Tyler Nickel played 25.
Carolina trailed by 10 at the half, 37-27, and was down as many as 18 in the second half, before the Heels put together one of those patented Tar Heel runs, cutting the lead all the way down 67-64, with a chance to cut it to two, with Caleb Love seeking to convert a three-point play. Love would miss the foul shot, which led to an easy Hokie basket, and after Pete Nance clunked a corner triple, it was evident the comeback was going to fall short. The comeback was spurned by the defensive pressure applied by the aforementioned Trimble and Nickel, as they were able to take Virginia Tech out of rhythm on offense. They also combined to score 14 points, so in the process, Hubert Davis may have found more players he trusts coming off the bench.
Virginia Tech shot 51% from the field, as Justyn Mutts was the best player on the floor today, scoring 27 points on 12-16 shooting. He also grabbed 11 rebounds, and handed out 4 assists, putting together one of his best performances as a Hokie. Four of their starters reached double figures, as Mike Young’s offense was running like a well-oiled machine. As for Carolina, they shot 47% which feels like an improvement from recent games, but the outside shooting struggles continued, as they were 3-17. Love, Davis, and Nance all scored 18 points each, but the absence of Armando Bacot was felt in the first half, as UNC scored a season-low, 27 points. Furthermore, Carolina got beat on the glass, 39-25, and it took until the second half to grab an offensive rebound. Without Bacot, it wasn’t fair to expect the same rebounding prowess, but not competing just isn’t acceptable.
Nobody could’ve seen a four-game losing streak when the season started, with Carolina being the favorite to win the ACC and the national championship, but that’s where they are, and nobody is going to feel sorry for them. Hopefully, in the final eight minutes or so, Carolina found something that will springboard the season, if not, Hubert Davis will have his work even more cut out for him:
No Bacot: It was probably the right decision for Bacot to not play today, after he dealt with ankle injuries in the Phil Knight Invitational, and bruised his shoulder in the loss in Indiana earlier in the week. Regardless, his absence was notable, as Carolina had virtually no inside presence on both ends of the floor, leading to easy buckets at the rim, and rebounds abound for the opponent. Hopefully, the week off will allow Bacot to heal up because Carolina is going to need him on the court if they hope to turn the season around.
Too Much Mutts: Justyn Mutts is a really good college basketball player, but there should never be a scenario where he’s the best player on the floor when playing against North Carolina, but today he was. Mutts scored 27 points, grabbed 11, and handed out 4 assists, as he simply took over the second half. Pete Nance had the assignment for most of the game, as Leaky Black was matched up with Sean Pedulla. Looking back on it, you have to wonder if Hubert would’ve chosen to defend Tech differently.
Seth Trimble & Tyler Nickel Spark Comeback: Like most of last season, UNC hasn’t gotten much from its bench, but that changed today, as Seth Trimble scored 6 points on 3-3 shooting, and Tyler Nickel added 8 on 3-5 shooting, and both were on the floor when UNC made a run from being down 57-39 to 67-64. That should be enough for them to start to carve out a role, which will do wonders for their confidence, and the overall depth of the team.
Improved Backcourt Play: It may not look like much, but Love and Davis combined to score 36 points, on 11-21 shooting. Their shot selection was much better today, as they started the game attacking the rim, as opposed to settling for contested perimeter shots. Who knows how the game unfolds if Love makes the free throw, which would’ve made it a 67-75 game, but for a team that is back to square one after a disastrous start, today felt like a step in the right direction.
Rebounding: With or without Armando Bacot, it is completely unacceptable for UNC to get on the boards like they did today, 39-25. Pete Nance has quietly put together back-to-back, double-digit rebounding performances, as he starting to round into form in that area of the game. During the week off, this team needs to recommit to rebounding the basketball, the way we expect a UNC team to.
Assists: Even with what feels like improved play on offense, Carolina assisted on just 6 of its 18 baskets tonight. Meanwhile, Tech assisted on 16 of its 31 made field goals. It's not hard to see the value in sharing the basketball, and how it directly leads to better play on that end of the court.
Up Next: Carolina finally returns home for the first time since the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when they host Georgia Tech next Saturday. The game is scheduled for a 3:15 tip, on ESPN.