NEW YORK – Moments after his Duke basketball team outlasted Miami in the first of two ACC Tournament semifinals on Friday, Paolo Banchero told a national television interviewer that he wanted another shot at rival North Carolina in Saturday’s championship game.
Perhaps Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels’ opponent at Barclays Center, took some motivation from the statement. Or maybe it was already motivated enough as they battle to get onto the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Either way, the seventh-seeded Hokies put a crimp in the plans of both Banchero and UNC.
Tech got hot late in the first half and carried it over into the second, blitzing the self-destructive Tar Heels by shooting 45% from 3-point range and rolling to a 72-59 victory.
The lopsided result sends the Hokies to the tournament final for the first time in school history and could potentially have locked up their entry into the field of 68 that will be announced on Selection Sunday.
“Man, we had an edge to us all night defensively,” Tech coach Mike Young said. “We had a good pop. I thought we made a couple of shots, but our defense carried us to get some separation and make a little hay.”
The Tar Heels in general and Brady Manek in particular had trouble carrying the hot hand that helped them rout Virginia one night earlier over into Friday’s semifinal against the Hokies.
Manek, who scored 19 first half points to personally outscore the Cavaliers, managed only four through the opening 20 minutes on 2 of 6 shooting (0-3 on 3-pointers).
But he wasn’t the only UNC player that struggled. As a team, the Tar Heels shot a frigid 37% overall and 3 of 14 from beyond the arc. Caleb Love and Armando Bacot, with 10 and nine points respectively, accounted for 19 of their team’s 26 points.
But as much as UNC sputtered on offense, it was the defense that carried it to a lopsided win against the Cavaliers that let it down most.
With point guard Storm Murphy attacking the rim off the dribble and big man Keve Aluma hitting from both inside and out, they connected on eight of their final 10 field goal attempts to take a 32-26 lead into the break.
That, however, was only the prelude to disaster for the Tar Heels, who beat Tech twice during the regular season – including a 65-57 victory in Blacksburg less than a month ago..
“We had talked about halftime, just coming out strong on both ends of the floor, just getting defensive stops, getting the shots that we want on the offensive end, just doing a better job executing,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said. “I felt like in the first half everything was difficult, everything was hard and we were all very encouraged about starting the second half and trying to change things around. It just didn’t happen.”
What did happen, happened fast.
Aluma completed a three-point play off an offensive rebound from teammate Justyn Mutts, Hunter Cattoor hit a 3-pointer in transition and Mutts made a 3-pointer from the top of the circle to complete a 12-0 run that all but decided the outcome.
And yet, the Hokies (22-12) were far from through. They extended the run to 16-2 and eventually ran their lead past the 20-point mark.
That was more than enough to withstand a brief comeback attempt that saw UNC score nine unanswered points midway through the period to cut the deficit to 11 at 54-43. A four-point play by Darius Maddox, who led Tech with 20 points, ended whatever hope the Tar Heels had with just over eight minutes remaining.
“It was tough at the moment because we were trying to make a run,” said Bacot, who increased his single-season school record to 25 double-doubles with 19 points and 14 rebounds. “But I said at the beginning of the year, I thought (the Hokies) were a top-three team in the conference. I believe they are a tournament team. So sometimes when you’re playing good teams like that, they just make shots and respond well.”
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, did neither.
They shot just 36.7% from the floor as a team and were even worse from beyond the 3-point arc, going 3 of 26. They missed all 12 of their 3-point attempts in the second half and their final 15 overall.
Guards Love and R.J. Davis, who scored 10 points apiece, were a combined 5 of 27 (3 of 16), and while Manek was a little better at 4 of 10 – also scoring 10 points – he missed all five of his 3-pointers.
Tech went 9 of 20 from long range and gave UNC fits with a four-guard lineup that created mismatches the Hokies (22-12) consistently exploited.
While the performance and the loss it brought about helped derail some of the momentum the Tar Heels have been building over the past few weeks – fueled by their emotional win at Cameron Indoor Stadium last Saturday – Davis said he considers Friday’s loss only a minor setback.
“One of the things I said after the game is I don’t want them to be discouraged, I want them to be encouraged,” the first-year UNC coach said. “I know that we’re disappointed that we did not play better and we did not win tonight, but over the last month and a half, two months, I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group.
“I told them I remember that bus ride coming back from Wake Forest (January 22) and to think that at that point that this group, led by Armando, we won 12 out of 15. Just as a team … perseverance and fight.”