Tyler Nickel returns to Chapel Hill, scores 14 in loss to UNC

UNC’s Armando Bacot attempts a shot between Virginia Tech’s Mylyjael Poteat and Tyler Nickel, left, during the Tar Heels’ win Satirday in Chapel Hill. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — Tyler Nickel stepped onto the floor of the Smith Center, as he’d done dozens of times in the past. However, he came out of a different tunnel this time, and he was wearing different colors.

Still not sure how the day was going to go, Nickel saw a familiar face — UNC big man Armando Bacot. The two had played and practiced together for a year, Nickel’s first and only one with the Tar Heels, before he decided to transfer prior to this season.

Nickel turned to greet Bacot, who responded with, “I’m gonna put you on the ground.”

“I’m pretty sure he was kidding,” Nickel said afterward. “He’s always messing around, so it was light-hearted.”

Nickel managed to stay upright, but his Virginia Tech Hokies were not able to topple the No. 7 Tar Heels, who rolled to a 96-81 win at the Dean Dome.

Nickel did manage to carve out a small spot in UNC history, becoming the first former Tar Heel to play against UNC at the Smith Center following a transfer. Research by NSJ and the school uncovered only one other Tar Heels transfer who ever played his old team in any venue — Larry Davis, who scored 19 in a 1996 game against the Heels in Charlotte after transferring to South Carolina.

Nickel hit his first two 3-point attempts and finished with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 4 of 6 from deep. He also had a career-high three blocked shots.

Nickel has already scored four times as many points with the Hokies as he did for the Tar Heels last season, and his double-digit scoring night was his second straight for Tech.

“He’s had a good year for us,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said. “He’s awesome to coach. Very conscientious. Wants to be a great player. I’m proud of his effort today and all year, through thick and thin. He’s a darn good one. I didn’t say a word to him about coming back. I’m sure he’d tell you the same thing — he had a great experience. He had a better opportunity in our place to play a lot of minutes, and that’s certainly come to fruition.”

“Weird,” Nickel said of his return to Chapel Hill. “It was a weird feeling because it feels very familiar, obviously in a very different situation now.”

Nickel had been concerned in the days leading up to the game that there might be ill will since he chose to leave the Carolina program, one of several transfers following last season’s roller-coaster year. Fans have been known to turn on ex-players for less.

“As far as the energy before and then at the game, I really didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But it seemed really positive. Really great. … It was cool. I got a lot of positive reception from people in the stands and, obviously, from the program.”

In addition to Bacot’s pregame taunting, he got to catch up with current UNC players Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington, who were part of his recruiting class.

“It’s awesome because I get to see them again, and I love those guys,” Nickel said, “but at the same time, we have a job to do.”

UNC was the one that was able to get the job done, building an early lead and cruising as Bacot scored 25 points and RJ Davis added 20.

On his way to discuss the win at his postgame press conference, UNC coach Hubert Davis paused outside the media room. Nickel, now showered and dressed in street clothes, was headed to the team bus for the ride back to Blacksburg, his personal land of opportunity. The coach embraced his former player and congratulated him, telling Nickel how proud he was of him.

Then the two went their separate ways.

“I have no ill will,” Nickel said. “It was good to see them around.”

Still, it might be a good idea to keep one eye out for Armando Bacot. You never know.