Court Vision: No. 15 North Carolina slogs way through ugly win

No. 15 North Carolina head coach Roy Williams spent much of Sunday night unhappy with his team during a 15-point win over an outmatched Virginia Tech team.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 15 North Carolina (14-4, 4-1) played one of its worst games of the season, but still managed to slog its way past an outmanned Virginia Tech (8-9, 0-4 ACC) team that fought hard and, for awhile, gave the Tar Heels all they could handle. The final score of 68-53 doesn’t necessarily reflect how close it got for a precarious few minutes.

THREE-POINT TAKE

1. THE TAR HEELS DON’T FEEL GOOD ABOUT THIS WIN — NOR SHOULD THEY

The Tar Heels had some good moments in a game that seemed to stop and start constantly with no real flow. The game was interrupted multiple times in both halves because of blood on the court, and at one point, a referee had to wipe out a made free throw by Virginia Tech and switch free-throw shooters.

But there just seemed to be something missing from the Tar Heels all night long, and it reflected itself in both the final stats (44.1 percent shooting and 16 assists to 17 turnovers) and in their general carelessness.

Although Virginia Tech had 13 steals, many of the turnovers were relatively unforced errors. Sloppy passes, bad decisions or just a lack of concentration.

"Seventeen turnovers is way too many and the choice of the passes that we’re making, you can’t make a pass to a guy that’s two feet away from you, you can’t throw bullets all the time sometimes, you’ve got to throw passes other people can catch," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "I don’t think my team is stupid but boy, we make some dumb plays."

A lot of the turnovers could have been avoided if the Tar Heels — a generally unselfish group of fairly adept passers — made the easy play.

"Just bad passing. Sometimes, we try to make the home-run play instead of making the easy one. That goes for me. That goes for everybody else," freshman Justin Jackson said. "With that come turnovers. So we just have to play a lot smarter and not turn the ball over."

North Carolina had a huge size and skill advantage in the post. Instead of probing the Virginia Tech zone defense, as they did seemingly effortlessly and effectively against NC State and going inside-out, the Tar Heels often passed it around the perimeter and let someone jack up a 3-pointer in the first half.

"I asked them to take the shot that I wanted, not the shot that (Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams) wanted. It’s a simple thing," Williams said. "They want you to take those 3’s for a reason. We don’t make as many of them. We had a huge size advantage inside. We score 34 points inside to their 18 and it should’ve been more than that.

"If you look at the stat sheet in the first half, we shot 13 3’s but zero free throws. That’s not the way a North Carolina team is supposed to play."

Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina’s starting center, finished with eight points but just three rebounds in 19 minutes, while Brice Johnson had 12 and 11 in 25 minutes. The duo had combined for eight points at halftime and weren’t getting the ball as much as Williams would have liked.

"It was partially my fault and Kennedy’s fault with that. We weren’t moving as well down low, so they couldn’t really get (the ball) in there. At the end of the day, they had to shoot it or it’d end up as a turnover," Johnson said. "We just have to do a lot better with our movement, myself included, just be able to move and just be able to get it inside the zone, and then we can be able to kick it out.

"That’s the shot we want. We don’t to just pass it around the arc and then just shoot it. That’s not a shot Coach wants. Coach wants a shot that if it goes down inside to like the short corner, pass it across, pass it back or pass it in the middle and pass it out, that’s the shot he really wants."

North Carolina only took three 3-pointers in the second half, but they had eight turnovers after a nine-turnover first half. And they let Virginia Tech control the tempo a lot more in the second half.

The Tar Heels kept the Hokies at arm’s length, but a particularly sloppy stretch at the end of the game allowed Virginia Tech to cut it to eight points. Virginia Tech got the ball back down by that margin with 1:57 to go, but it turned it over.

There were some stretches of good play. But far too often, Virginia Tech was the more active team, the more determined team. And in its totality, this game might have been one of North Carolina’s worst of the year, including its losses.

"It doesn’t feel as bad (as a loss). At the end of the day, we won, and that has a huge bearing on a lot of things around here. But at the same time, we understand that we didn’t get a whole lot better today as a team, and that’s what we’re trying to do," Marcus Paige said.

Yes, North Carolina lost to Butler and Iowa (the latter at home). No, the Tar Heels didn’t look great in either of those games. But considering the opponent’s relative strength in this game, the sloppiness seems all the more glaring.

And it can’t keep happening.

"They didn’t have their leading scorer (Justin Bibbs) tonight. He’s out with a concussion," Johnson said." Just imagine if he was there and they got all those extra possessions — that could’ve been the difference in the ballgame. We were just lucky to get out of there with a win the way that we played."

2. THE YOUNG SUPPORT STAFF IS STARTING TO PUT THE PIECES TOGETHER

The freshman Justin Jackson was supposed to be the missing piece, the scorer that would complement Marcus Paige so that he wouldn’t have to carry that load himself.

But the operative word there is freshman, and North Carolina’s willowy starting wing has been every bit of that for most of his career.

"I was thinking too much. That was the biggest thing for me was I went out there and tried not to mess up, which in basketball at the college level, you can’t do that. I think that was the biggest thing," Jackson said.

But he’s really starting to turn the corner, and he finished this game with a game-high 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting, adding seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 27 minutes.

The complete stat line is key there, and assistant coach Hubert Davis let him know about the importance of that after the NC State game.

"I think last game against NC State, I had zero rebounds, which, for a 6-8 wing, that’s terrible," Jackson said. "Coach Davis actually told me if I don’t get five or more rebounds then I’ve got to babysit his kids. Not just this game, but every game, I have to try and go out there and contribute wherever I need to contribute."

Jackson was wandering around, seemingly, unsure of where to go on offense — should he set a screen for Paige, or look for his own shot? Should he hang out on the perimeter or go down low?

But he’s starting to pick his spots, and that part of it makes Paige happy.

"That’s what we want him to do. He likes to hang out around that baseline and get to the floater, and then get on the offensive boards from that area," Paige said (Jackson finished with three offensive rebounds). "He knocked down a couple 3’s today, which helped. But we want him to be aggressive because he’s another scorer. That gives us another dimension of playing in that midrange area."

Sophomore big man Isaiah Hicks had a career game at NC State with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting, but he built on that in this game with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting, adding more field goals than Meeks did in one fewer minute.

Hicks also had six rebounds, one assist, no turnovers and two steals. He was active, aggressive and played hard, just like Jackson, and if they keep that up, they’ll both be rewarded with more and more playing time.

3. BUZZ WILLIAMS’ REBUILD PROJECT WILL TAKE SOME TIME. BUT HE’LL GET THE JOB DONE

Virginia Tech went into this game losers of four straight, many to good teams. The Hokies have been competitive at times this season, but also have bad losses to teams like Appalachian State and Radford (both at home).

Before the West Virginia game — which was just before ACC play — Williams suspended Virginia Tech junior center Joey van Zegeren, one of the Hokies’ better and more experienced players.

The Hokies lost by just two points at home to Syracuse, then had a comeback effort fall short at Florida State and fought back from a 19-point deficit at Louisville to "win" the second half, 39-35.

Then Virginia Tech lost its leading scorer, freshman Justin Bibbs, to a concussion in practice entering the North Carolina game.

With all of those things happening, plus the losses piling up and nothing to build the confidence of a young team, you’d think the Hokies would have showed some surrender or lack of fight in the second half.

And yet, they never did.

"When you feel like after a game you’ve been in a fight, I think then you’ve probably given your best," Williams said. "I thought that loose balls and in the fray I thought we were first to the floor a lot. I thought we were fighting. I respect that."

He was right — the Hokies had to fight and claw for almost everything they got, but ultimately they just didn’t have enough in their arsenal to compete with North Carolina.

Still, Williams was active and coaching the entire game, standing on the sideline and yelling out instructions to his team and high-fiving the guys during timeouts.

There’s a lack of talent in Blacksburg right now, but there’s no quit in Williams or in his team.

The Hokies gave the Tar Heels plenty of trouble, forcing the game to be played at their pace instead of North Carolina’s.

"They did a good job of switching zones. They go 2-3 and then 3-2, and then they’d play like a soft man-to-man," Paige said. "They did a good job of (mucking) up the game on the offensive end of the floor."

STATS THAT MATTER

7 to 8: That was the assist-to-turnover ratio of North Carolina’s starting guards, Paige and J.P. Tokoto. As Paige said after the game, that can’t happen. Those two accounted for nearly half of the team’s turnovers.

24.9: Speaking of turnovers, that’s the percentage of possessions on which North Carolina turned the ball over. That’s the highest since a Dec. 13 loss at Kentucky and third-highest all season.

STRAIGHT TALK

"Yeah. I mean, it’s hard — I don’t like to say that, but as an honest person, it’s harder to get up for this game than it would be for say a rivalry game on the road against (NC State) or when the No. 4 or 5 team comes into your house. But at the same time, they’re an ACC opponent. You have to treat everyone the same and we didn’t do that for a lot of this game." – Paige, on the team’s inability to create energy

"I’m trying to cut back practice for everybody, and that’s my fault. We’ve tried to cut back practice to take care of our health, but now I want to take care of my health mentally. That’ll be the concern during practice tomorrow night. You know, bowl games aren’t on. Last week, Monday night, I was watching the football game I ain’t got nothing to do tomorrow night. … I can practice for a long time." – Roy Williams on turning tomorrow’s off day into a practice day

"You can see him when you come in to practice. He walks the gym. I look at it and if he’s walking fast, you know when you’re walking fast you’re trying to get some things off your mind. Usually, he’s smiling, shaking hands with everybody, talking. But you know when he’s moving around the gym, not saying a word, you’d better go hard. You’d better give everything you’ve got." – Hicks, on how he knows what kind of mood his head coach is in at practice